The Methodist biblical scholar, Margaret Barker, wrote a book published in 1996 titled The Risen Lord in which she proposed that
“the original understanding of resurrection may in fact be Jesus’ mystical experience at his baptism, when he was raised up and transformed into the divine Son.”
Later she summarized these thoughts in a few pages in her 2008 book Temple Themes in Christian Worship, from which I’ll share a few of her intriguing, and I think accurate, insights into the nature of resurrection and how it was originally regarded in the early Christian church.
She begins by noting Paul’s statement in Romans 1:3-4 is likely referring to Jesus’ baptism, when the heavens opened and the Spirit announced the “Son of God.” But this scripture also equates it with his resurrection from the dead. Barker says:
This early statement of belief is saying that when Jesus was named and empowered as Son of God, it was his resurrection. There are several indications that Jesus’ baptism and experience of the open heaven was his resurrection. (Page 111)
This is fascinating, because in most modern Christian understanding Jesus’ resurrection only happens long after his baptism, after his death and entombment, when it is said that he rose up again on the third day. But the earliest texts, Barker notes, might lead us to consider otherwise. Barker brings together many scriptures and ancient texts to corroborate her view.
Barker shows that there are early texts that note how Jesus’ post-resurrection teaching of his disciples took several hundred days, many months, and that these might actually be referring to Jesus’ ministry immediately after his baptism until his death, not visitations or appearances that happened after his mortal death. According to Barker “the resurrection preceded Good Friday,” and Easter was a kind of confirmation to witnesses (more on my thoughts about that below).
Barker shares an interesting line from the Gospel of Philip that seems to accord with this view:
“Those who said that the LORD died first and then rose up are in error, for he rose up first and then he died. If one does not first attain the resurrection, will he not die?”
This seems to be saying Jesus’ resurrection was something that happened during his life, before his mortal death, which radically changed the nature of that mortal death for him; mortal death perhaps no longer held the same sting, or was viewed from a very different perspective than before that transformation.
Resurrection could mean many things, but in temple tradition it meant ascent to the heavenly throne. (page 111)
In other words, whenever the heavens were opened in mystical vision, and one ascended to the throne of God, this was, in essence, a resurrection, a raising up of one from a lower plane to the highest plane, even an uplifting to Life itself (God). Barker illustrates this with scriptures about King David:
“I have set a crown upon one who is mighty/ I have exalted one chosen from the people/… with my holy oil I have anointed him” (Ps. 89:19-20)
“The oracle of David, the son of Jesse/ the oracle of the man who was raised on high/ the anointed of the God of Jacob…” (2 Sam. 23:1)
Barker notes that that being “raised on high” or “raising up” was an ascent to heaven and also meant resurrection. Even more, David was anointed, which means he was made a Messiah, meaning an “Anointed One.”
This means that ‘resurrection’ in this sense was part of what it meant to be the Messiah. (page 112)
Barker then notes how in the New Testament the scriptures that reference older texts that imply bodily resuscitation, the typical interpretation of resurrection, are not actually used in referring to the resurrection of Jesus.
Barker continues by noting that the higher priesthood of Melchizedek was distinguished from the lower priesthood of Aaron by resurrection, the higher being a priesthood of “ascent,” where the priest “arises by the power of an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16).
The Aaronite priests die and have successors, but Melchizedek is priest for ever, because he is already resurrected (Heb. 7:23-24). He has become like the Son of God (Heb. 7:3). (Page 112, emphasis added)
Barker recalls again Romans 1:4, that becoming the Son of God means being resurrected. That is what being a “Son of God” means. One does not become a Son of God without resurrection. They are inseparable phenomena. Barker later notes how in Luke 20:36, Jesus himself equates “sons of God,” “sons of the resurrection,” and “angels,” and in John 10:36 when debating the Jews refers to himself as “Son of God.”
Do we have more evidence about what the early Christians thought of resurrection? Yes. Barker explains that the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in John’s gospel illustrates an important connection. To enter the Kingdom one had to be born of water and Spirit, but these were two different processes, birth in flesh versus birth in Spirit.
Jesus’ speaking of water and Spirit indicates baptism, [but] being born again was resurrection, starting life anew. (Page 112, emphasis added)
She also notes how Paul’s words to the Christians in Colossae show that they were already raised (resurrected): “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things which are above, where Christ is…” (Col. 1:1). John also notes similarly, “We know that we have passed out of death into life” (1 John 3:14). There is a sense here of going through a “death” which then reveals “life,” but Barker does not comment on this.
Barker goes on to describe Enoch’s transformation into an angel, which was “his resurrection.” Enoch ascends to the highest heaven and to the throne of God where Michael removes Enoch’s earthly clothing (mortal body), anoints him, and clothes him in garments of divine glory. Enoch sees himself transformed into “one of the glorious ones.” He is made an “angel of the Presence,” standing “with the host of the holy ones,” and is “reckoned with the ‘elohim and my glory is with the sons of the King.”
Barker tells of what the contemporaries of the early Christians understood about resurrection:
These contemporaries of the first Christians believed that resurrection meant being taken up into the presence of God and becoming angels before their physical death, and The Odes of Solomon, early baptismal hymns, show that the Church had similar beliefs. (Page 113)
She says that these Odes “seem to show that resurrection meant being taken up into the presence of God.”
“I rested on the Spirit of the LORD/ And she lifted me up to the heaven/… [She] brought me before the face of the LORD…/ And he anointed me with his perfection/ And I became one of those who are near him (Ode 36.1, 3, 6).” (Page 113-4, emphasis added)
Barker goes on to note how Luke’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration shows the same kind of transformation, and that
…it is generally recognized as a resurrection appearance; some say it has been misplaced into the middle of the Gospel narrative, but it is more likely that this resurrection appearance was the disciples glimpsing the resurrected Messiah before his death, just as the Gospel of Philip attests. (Page 114)
One thing that Barker doesn’t comment on here, but I have seen it noted by others elsewhere, is that the disciples had been asleep, and it is when “they wakened [that] they saw his glory” (Luke 9:32). Was this a waking from typical sleep, as we traditionally think, or had they themselves awakened to the same enlightened state themselves, being raised up (resurrected) from a death-like “sleep” to witness the glory of the Son of God in themselves?
Barker continues by describing how Jesus’ baptism is also related to his descent into hell and his triumph over evil powers. This may again be reference to a “dying,” or Jesus passing through a “dark night of the soul” as part of his baptism and mystical ascent experience. His baptism was said to crush the head of the serpent, and break the head of the dragon in the waters, a reference to the curse on the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
Barker concludes that the early Christians knew that their baptism was like Jesus’ baptism:
Since the Kingdom was the state of the holy of holies, the place of the throne, where faithful Christians with the Name of their foreheads worshipped the God-and-the-Lamb, the picture emerges of the baptized/born again/resurrected experiencing at their baptism what Jesus had known in the Jordan. (page 118)
This paints a very different picture, indeed, of Jesus’ resurrection than is the traditional and common Christian understanding. It may not have been the resuscitation of his physical body after his crucifixion, but a mystical enlightenment experience at the time of his baptism, one that raised him up to the throne of God, and transformed him into the “Son of God.” This gave him the authority and experience necessary to teach during his ministry, and help bring others into the same knowledge of God. And it was an experience that other people could likewise share in, indeed one that Jesus himself likely guided others towards as a Melchizedek high priest, experiencing this same “death” and resurrection to Life as Jesus had, during mortal life. This may be what early Christians actually experienced which was the radical conversion and enlightenment that gave them their name.
What, then, was Easter? Where did all the stories and witness accounts of Jesus post-crucifixion appearances and visitations come from? I’m not sure what Margaret Barker’s interpretation of this is, but I suggest it was the early Christians having their own mystical experiences, the kind of experiences that Jesus had taught them that they could have, experiencing their own ascents to God, their own enthronement, their own resurrection as “Son(s) of God,” becoming one with the “Elohim,” passing through a death-like state, a “crucifixion” of ego-self (see Galatians 2:20), and being born again, awakening to their own enlightened glory as one with the Divine Messiah, a merging of identity with the angels on High, and a direct perception that Christ was alive within their own selves, as the Life of their own true Selves (Gal. 2:20). They were one in Christ, as Jesus had prayed they might be (John 17), and so they became witnesses of Christ’s resurrection in their own selves.
In my view, this did not have to do with bodily post-mortal resuscitation or reanimation, bringing physically dead humans back to life which seems quite at odds with nature and the sciences, but rather it was a psychological death of ego-self in consciousness, a surrender of that “old creature,” the “natural man” or “carnal mind,” and an exaltation of consciousness and being to an enlightened state of living, becoming a “new creature in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17), and understanding one’s true nature as One with all of Life (“Christ”) and the Cosmos (the “Father”), an understanding and knowledge that one could only truly gain by passing through the experience for one’s self.
This original understanding of resurrection, of being born again, baptized by Fire and the Spirit, and raised up to an indestructible Life not after mortal death but during life, was forgotten and lost sometime in early Christian history, and is now being restored through the work of scholars like Margaret Barker, mystics, prophets, sages, and others.
In my own Mormon tradition, the philosopher Adam Miller has recently published a book along these lines, entitled An Early Resurrection: Life in Christ Before You Die, which seems to have brought some attention to this general subject in the Mormon community. The book description notes, “We often hope for an abundant life with Christ in the next life, but how can we let ourselves and our own desires die so we can be born again to a new life, a full life in Christ, here and now in this mortal life?”