Easter Resurrected: a letter from David Hawkes

In the 1980s, after completing his monumental translation of the first eighty chapters of The Story of the Stone 紅樓夢, David Hawkes retired with his wife Jean to an old stone farmhouse called Bryn Carregog (Stony Hill), in the mountains of Mid-Wales. There they ran a small-holding, and he worked on what he thought would be his farewell to Sinology, the extensive revision of his translation of The Songs of the South 楚辭. At the same time he began teaching himself the Welsh language, and embarked on extensive reading into the history of religion.

His religious studies eventually bore fruit in a series of essay which he entitled Letters from a Godless Grandfather. A year or two before his death in 2009, these were privately printed in Hong Kong, for distribution to friends. It is now hoped that they will be properly published in book form. In anticipation of this, we are sharing one or two individual ‘letters’ with our readers.

John Minford, co-founder of
The Wairarapa Academy for
New Sinology, 13 April 2017

The landscape of Mid-Wales.

Over recent months, we have marked important days in the Chinese lunar calendar in China Heritage. Here, we observe Πάσχα, Pascha or Easter. It is the most widely celebrated event in the Christian calendar and one that has also had a place in Western engagement with China from as early as the time of the Nestorians, and more recently since the time of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) in the sixteenth century.

In the following, David Hawkes focusses his attention on the central event of the Easter celebrations, the Resurrection. In producing The Story of the Stone Hawkes meticulously compared the various manuscripts and editions of Cao Xueqin’s novel to create a unique English-langauge version of the first eighty chapters of China’s most famous work of fiction. He brings that same keen eye, and forensic sensibility both as writer and as translator, to bear on the differing accounts of the posthumous fate of Jesus of Nazareth,

Christianity played a crucial role during the various phases of European (and later ‘Western’) engagement with China. It helped spawn Western-inflected Sinology; the word is a rendering of a Chinese term: 漢學, ‘Han Studies’ — the body of canonical learning that evolved from the Han dynasty. Christian missionaries and scholars developed important traditions of dictionary compilation, translation and interpretation. China Heritage is, in part, heir to those traditions of learned engagement with the Chinese world.

In China, a native Christian cult spawned a short-lived rebel dynasty in the mid-nineteenth century, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom 太平天國. The ruling Qing court relied on avowedly Christian foreign forces to help eliminate the anti-Manchu uprising, thereby vouchsafing its own rule for some decades while helping maintain the economic benefits that the Western trading powers enjoyed in China well into the twentieth century. Some historians claim that the Taiping War was the most bloody civil conflict in human history. &, in one of the many dialectic ironies of Chinese Communist historiography, the Taiping Kingdom is lauded as a progressive, if misguided, movement.

As a result of the intolerance of difference, be it in terms of culture, thought, race, gender, sexuality or religion, Christianity and its proselytisers have had incalculable baleful effects. It is important to recall the fanaticism born of Christianity; to this day it encourages an apocalyptic view of humanity, one that, in this new age of extremism, is shared by political and economic titans of both global and regional powers.

Caveat Lector: the Great Leap of Faith presumably inoculates believers against views of the kind expressed in the Hawkes Letters. Those of less mature conviction might wish to pass over this Easter.

— The Editor, China Heritage




Dear Tal,

Thanks for answering so soon. You’re absolutely right, of course, and I feel rather ashamed, rambling on like that about Eusebius and Ephesus and Schonfield and I don’t know what and never getting round to giving a straight answer to your question: do I think he was really dead or don’t I?

Just to make sure that I don’t do the same thing again, I’d better come clean and say straight away, (a) that I think he was dead, and (b) that I don’t think he was seen alive after­wards.

I suppose it’s theoretically possible that he wasn’t dead but just comatose when they put him in that tomb on Friday evening and that he was showing signs of life when he was taken out on Saturday night or whenever it was. And I suppose in that case he could have been gradually nursed back to health. That’s the theory on which the Irish novelist George Moore based his novel The Brook Kerith which came out in 1916, halfway through the Great War. But I don’t believe for a minute that that’s what happened. The stories about his posthumous appearances are just that — stories. Look how different they are in the different gospels. To understand the stories you need to bear in mind that Jesus wasn’t actually buried. He was placed in a cave-like sepulchre — probably a little cell carved in the side of a wall of rock with a stone platform at one side of it to lay the body on. The entrance would have been closed by means of a round, flat stone like a large millstone which could, with some effort, be rolled to one side of the entrance. (A rolling stone door of this type was found in a royal tomb excavated some time ago in Jerusalem.)

I’ll start with Mark because the account Mark gives is the simplest, most straightforward of the four.

(1) Mary of Magdala, another Mary and Salome go at sunrise on Sunday to anoint the corpse. They find the stone door of the sepulchre rolled back and a young man in white sitting inside it who tells them that Jesus has risen and is on his way to Galilee. He says they are to pass this on to the disciples, who will be able to meet him there. The women are frightened, however, and run away. [The text breaks off there, half-way through a sentence.]
(2) In another ending, written in a different style — not found in two of the most important manuscript texts of this gospel and obviously added later — Jesus appears to Mary of Magdala, whose report is disbelieved, then to two others (unnamed), and finally to the eleven apostles ‘while they were at table’.

(1) On ‘the day after Preparation Day’, i.e. on the Sabbath, the Jewish religious leaders go to Pilate and arrange to have a guard set on the sepulchre so that Jesus’s disciples can’t steal the body and pretend that he has risen from the dead.
(2) Mary of Magdala and ‘the other Mary’ go to the sepulchre. There is an earthquake. An angel comes down from heaven and rolls away the stone. The guards faint. The angel says, ‘He is risen. See where he lay. Go and tell his disciples to go to Galilee.’
(3) Jesus now appears to the two women and repeats the same message himself.
(4) The guards tell the chief priests what has happened and are paid to keep quiet.
(5) Jesus meets the eleven apostles (twelve minus Judas) in Galilee.

(1) ‘Women’, later in the account identified as Mary of Magdala, another Mary, and Joanna, go to the sepulchre at dawn and find the stone rolled away. Two men in brilliant clothes suddenly appear. ‘Remember what he told you when he was in Galilee,’ they say. ‘The Son of Man was destined to be crucified and rise again on the third day.’
(2) The women tell the apostles, who don’t believe them. Peter goes to look but sees nothing.
(3) Cleopas (Jesus’s uncle) and an unnamed companion are walking to Emmaus, seven miles north-west of Jerusalem, when they are joined by another traveller. He gets into conversation with them and finally accompanies them to an inn. Just as they are beginning their meal they recognize him as Jesus and he vanishes. They return to Jerusalem to see the Eleven and are told that Jesus has also appeared to Peter. (No details given.)
(4) Jesus now appears to them all and invites them to touch him. He then goes with them to Bethany and disappears in a cloud.

(1) Mary of Magdala finds the stone moved back and the sepulchre empty. She runs to tell Peter and another disciple (unnamed).
(2) Peter and his companion investigate the sepulchre and then go home.
(3) Mary of M, still outside the sepulchre, looks inside and sees two angels. Then she looks round and sees Jesus (without recognizing him). ‘Do not touch me,’ he says. ‘I am ascending to my Father.’ (He isn’t.)
(4) That same day Jesus visits the apostles indoors. The apostle Thomas isn’t present.
(5) Eight days later Doubting Thomas, now with the rest, is invited to feel Jesus’s wounds.
(6) Jesus appears to a number of disciples beside the Sea of Galilee. They go fishing and have a picnic with him on the shore. Jesus makes various predictions about Peter and an unnamed disciple (= BD?).

When you put all these accounts together, you can see that most of what they are saying has got to be fantasy. Flesh and blood people can’t just pop up all over the place like this, especially if they’ve just been crucified. And anyway, the different stories don’t add up. The only thing they’re all agreed on is that some of Jesus’s women followers visited the sepulchre at break of day on the second morning after he’d been put there and found the stone rolled back and the sepulchre empty. They may have spoken to a man in white who may have said something about Jesus and Galilee. Whatever it was, they ran away in a fright and the account they gave of what they had seen or heard was not believed by their menfolk. The other happenings and appearances seem to tell us more about the way in which legends develop than they do about actual events.

It’s not difficult to see how these particular legends may have developed. Matthew says most Jews believed that Jesus’s body was stolen by his disciples. To prove that this can’t have happened there had to be a story that the Jewish leaders went to see Pilate (on the Sabbath — pretty unlikely!) and arranged to have a guard put on the sepulchre. But in that case, how did the sepulchre later come to be empty? Obviously, there has to be a supernatural explanation of some sort — an earthquake and the sudden appearance of an angel, say. Then again, who could take seriously what had only been told by a pack of frightened women? There had to be more visits to the sepulchre by the male disciples (actually all in hiding). And how do you explain all those reports of people who said they’d spoken to Jesus without recognizing him but after­wards been quite sure that it was him? Couldn’t it just have been an apparition that they’d spoken to? No, because on more than one occasion he invited people to touch him, even to feel his wounds. And anyway, look at all that eating — appearing to the apostles when they were ‘at table’, sitting down to supper in the inn at Emmaus, picnicking at the sea­side in Galilee — everyone knows that ghosts can’t eat!

So what became of the body? Christian writers with a fondness for capital letters call this the problem of the Empty Tomb.

In 19th-century Britain there used to be grave-robbers — ‘body-snatchers’ they called them — who stole corpses to sell to anatomists, but I don’t think there was anything like that in 1st-century Palestine. There was a trade in the body-parts of crucified men, especially fingers, for use in magic, but I don’t think anyone would have gone to the trouble of carting off a whole body when they could just as well have cut bits off it and carried them away in a bag. John says there was nearly a hundredweight of extremely valuable spices in the sepulchre donated by someone called Nicodemus. That would have been worth stealing, but not the body. It doesn’t seem to have been the disciples who took it. They seem to have been genuinely surprised to be told that it was missing. The likeliest person to have been responsible for its disappearance is the owner of the sepulchre himself, Joseph of Arimathea.

It’s most unlikely that Joseph had intended his sepulchre to be Jesus’s permanent resting-place. Because the Sabbath was starting only a matter of hours after the body was taken down from the cross, it had to be got to a place of safety in a great hurry. Laying it in the sepulchre which he’d had made at great expense for himself would only have been a temporary expedient. It’s more than likely that he’d have sent his servants to remove it from there for burial elsewhere as soon as the Sabbath was over.

Another possibility that’s been suggested — though I think it’s a pretty far-fetched one — is that the body was removed by a group of Essenes who’d arranged with Joseph of Arimathea to take it off his hands and dispose of it themselves. The Essenes were a religious group who lived rather like monks in settlements in the Judæan desert. It’s quite likely that Jesus had friends and sympathisers belonging to this sect. Some people even think he may once have belonged to it himself. One of their characteristics was that they dressed in white. If they were the people who took the body it would explain all this stuff about angels or men in white or men in dazzling clothing which crops up both in the gospel accounts of the Resurrection and in the Acts account of the Ascension. If it was a group of Essenes who took the body, they might have left one of their number behind to explain to any of Jesus’s followers who turned up at the sepulchre what they had done with it. ‘He’s not here, he’s gone ahead to Galilee’ could simply mean ‘We’re taking the body back to Galilee to bury him with his own people.’ It doesn’t seem very likely, because if he was buried in Galilee his family and disciples would presumably have known about it.

On the other hand they might have collected the body with the intention of taking it to Galilee for burial but then noticed that there were signs of life in it and changed their minds. Even the New Testament doesn’t claim that Jesus remained alive on this earth for more than a few weeks after his crucifixion, so it’s just conceivable that after three weeks or so of careful nursing somewhere in the Jerusalem area he could have recovered sufficiently to be capable of a brief meeting with some of his disciples. It doesn’t seem very likely to me that this is what happened, but as there’s simply no means of knowing, any number of explanations are possible.

What is not possible is that Jesus, even if he had miraculously come to life again inside the sepulchre, could have got out of it unaided. If you read the bit about this in Mark you can see that three women thought the job of rolling the stone door back would be too much for them — and this was from the outside. (It couldn’t, obviously, be rolled from the inside.) At least two strong men, more likely three or four, must have come along to the sepulchre some time on Saturday night or in the small hours of Sunday morning to collect the body. If you can believe the stuff in Luke and John about the cloths that the corpse had been wrapped in being left behind, I suppose you could take that as proof that the corpse had come to life (as no doubt you’re meant to). On the other hand you could could say that the people who took the body were faking a resurrection. Or they might simply have been checking. They might simply have been curious to see what the body looked like. Come to think of it, if you’d been asked to collect a body it would be rather bizarre not to take the wrappings off it and have a look before you set about carting it away.

Christians who take their religion seriously tend to be rather scornful of this ‘whodunnit’ kind of approach to the gospel stories. Some very sophisticated Christians will even tell you that it doesn’t much matter whether the stories are literally true or not. They think of them as myths which have important truths underlying them — truths without which they think their lives would cease to have meaning. But whether it’s ultra-modern, sophisticated Christians, or literal-minded, hell-fire, fundamentalist Christians, or just ordinary, middle-of-the-road Christians who are not much given to asking — or answering — questions about their religion, they all seem to think of the Resurrection as a central part of their faith. Easter has always been the most holy part of the Christian year and even the way of calculating its date was once thought so important that for centuries the entire Christian world was divided into two bitterly opposed camps taking different sides on this issue. The Saxon monk Bede who wrote a History of the English Church and People in the eighth century (he died in AD 735) was very impressed by the saintliness of the monks of Iona, who lived in a part of Britain where the people had been Christians long before the Saxons were, but he thought they were ‘barbarous and simple’ because they’d got the date of Easter wrong.

To non-Christians it can seem rather puzzling that Jesus’s brief return to earthly life after he’d been certified dead by the officer in charge of his execution should be thought so important. Christians are fond of saying that Jesus ‘conquered sin and death’ by his resurrection; but that’s just pious rhetoric. Sin and death remained pretty much the same after his resurrection as they had been before it; and his teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven and how men ought to behave towards each other and towards their Heavenly Father were not made any more true or important by his coming back to life and surviving for a few days or weeks after his crucifixion. Dying for your beliefs is certainly a way of guaranteeing that they are sincere and might even encourage other people to take them seriously; but coming back to life again afterwards seems somehow to rob the martyrdom of its point, not to mention the possibility that you might be suspected of faking it.

Historically the real point of Jesus’s resurrection seems to have been that many of his followers had been expecting him to establish the kingdom of God on earth. To them his death would have meant the failure of his mission. But if he came back to life again after it, his crucifixion could be thought of not as a sign of failure but as a sign of triumph. Now it could be interpreted as a deliberate act of sacrifice in which he offered himself as a victim to atone for the sins of his people. If he not only came back to life again but was seen going up bodily into heaven, his followers could tell themselves that the kingdom of God on earth had only been postponed. He would come back again to fulfil his mission when the time was ripe.

At first most of his followers thought his return would be quite soon; but as time went by it receded farther and farther into the future, until nowadays only members of fundamentalist sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists are seriously expecting it to happen. Christians are supposed to believe in the Second Coming just as they’re supposed to believe in the ‘resurrection of the body’, i.e. that after they’re dead they’re going to be equipped with a new body which will be indestrucible. Hardly any of them do nowadays, of course. What they seem to believe nowadays is that Jesus’s resurrection is somehow or other a guarantee of their own immortality. When they die they won’t really die, they’ll all go to heaven and live there for ever and ever with the dear departed. (The everlasting bonfire that Jesus more than once referred to is now usually forgotten.)

In the gospels Jesus is reported to have said that his kingdom was ‘not of this world’ and he several times told his disciples that he expected to be killed. He seems to have thought that after his death he would go up to heaven to join his Heavenly Father, if you can believe the passage in Mark in which he tells one of the men who was crucified beside him, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ But whether he joined his Father in Heaven at 3.30 p.m. on the day of his crucifixion, as this seems to imply, or returned to life and made the trip five weeks later, as you’re told he did in Acts, doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the promise that he would be coming back to earth again at the End of Days. There must originally have been some other reason for the huge importance attached by Christian believers to his bodily resurrection.

I think the reason actually has to do neither with Jesus’s own teachings nor with Jewish beliefs about the Messiah but with the coincidence that he was crucified at a time of year very close to the vernal equinox, when one of the great festivals of the Roman world was held. This was the celebration of the bloody death and the resurrection three days later of the spirit of vegetation, young lover of the goddess of fertility, the Great Mother. In Rome itself the young god whose death was mourned and whose resurrection was joyfully celebrated was called Attis and the goddess was Cybele. Her worship was imported there from Asia Minor at the end of the third century BC. But the same pair had been worshipped from time immemorial under different names and in different guises all over the Middle East. In Babylonia they were Tammuz and Ishtar, in Syria they were Adonis and Astarte, in Egypt, where the god’s death and resurrection was celebrated later in the year, they were Osiris and Isis. Diana of the Ephesians, whose devotees nearly lynched Paul in the Acts of the Apostles, was the goddess under another of her names. Shakespeare’s long erotic poem Venus and Adonis is an up-dating of her story. (Venus or Aphrodite was the goddess of sexual love. ‘Adonis’ means ‘the Lord’ — ‘Adonai’ in Hebrew.)

The rites of what was originally a fertility festival celebrating nature’s annual renewal — the killing representing the cutting of the corn, the burial representing the sowing of the seed in the ground, the resurrection representing the emergence of the green shoots — came in time to symbolize renewal in a more general sense: the triumph of life over death, hope over despair, light over darkness, happiness over grief, etc.

Non-Jewish converts to Christianity, to whom Jesus was a ‘son of God’ in the most literal sense of the word, were quick to transfer the old springtime celebration of the pagan god of vegetation to their own crucified god, who now died and rose for them again every Easter. They even turned Mary, a middle-aged Jewish mother of seven, into a young and beautiful Queen of Heaven to take the place of the Great Mother or Ishtar or Isis or Astarte.

Some of the excitement of the old pre-Christian festival still remains — in Europe, anyway, where Easter comes in the springtime — but I don’t think its transfer to a Christian setting has been very satisfactory. Whereas the annual resurrection of the pagan god originally symbolized the power of all life to reproduce itself — which is the only kind of immortality we’ve got — the resurrection of Jesus is supposed to guarantee everlasting life after death (whatever that’s supposed to mean) to every individual human being — not to every individual mosquito, pear-tree or blade of grass. That’s always struck me as rather childish — a sort of ‘let’s pretend’ game to cheer ourselves up with when we’re obliged to face the idea of dying.

I really must end here or I shan’t be able to get up tomorrow and there will be some very unhappy goats.

Much love,