BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Resurrecting the Original Easter Vision

John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan travel the world searching for the earliest images of Jesus’s resurrection

Jesus’s resurrection, which is the climax of the New Testament and the central tenet of Christianity, happens off-screen. The Gospels describe Jesus’s crucifixion, death, and burial. Later they record encounters with the resurrected Jesus. But the actual moment when Jesus rises from the dead was not witnessed and, therefore, not explicitly described in the Gospels. Nevertheless, that has not stopped Christians from depicting this significant moment over the course of the past two millennia.

John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus at DePaul University and one of the world’s leading Biblical scholars, and Sarah Sexton Crossan have spent more than 15 years traveling the world and studying depictions of Jesus’s resurrection. What they have uncovered is fascinating: There seems to be a fundamental difference between the Eastern Church’s and Western Church’s representations. While the West usually depicts this as a solitary event, with Jesus rising alone, the East represents it more communally, with Jesus grasping the hands of deceased figures from the Bible, such as Adam and Eve, and rising with them.

In their new book Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision (HarperOne), John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan chronicle their travels as they search for the earliest depictions of Jesus’s resurrection—the original Easter vision—as well as the implications of these discoveries. Below are excerpts from Resurrecting Easter that describe one of their research trips.—Ed.


Subscribers: Read “Resurrecting Easter: Hunting for the Original Resurrection Image” by John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan in the March/April 2019 issue of BAR.

Not a subscriber yet? Join today.


Excerpts from Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision by John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan*

In the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus

We leave Orlando, Florida, the evening of Sunday, April 22, 2012, and, with plane-changes at Frankurt and Athens, arrive at Larnaca in the Greek portion of Cyprus’s divided island late the next evening. Tired to exhaustion, we are relieved to see our driver standing at the exit with “Crossan” on her upraised sign. Our week-long home is the Forest Park Hotel in the tiny village of (Pano) Platres high in the Troodos Mountains. We start the 4000-foot climb from the coast in a 1998 white Mercedes, beautifully preserved and extremely comfortable despite 150,000 miles on the odometer.

crossan-resurrecting-easter

Resurrecting Easter. John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan hold the icon from the Church of the Panagia of Amasgou in Cyprus, which depicts Jesus’s resurrection. Photo: Courtesy Sarah Sexton Crossan

That 43-mile trip takes an hour and a half, giving us lots of time to become acquainted with our driver, Sharon Ioannou, English-born but married to John, a Greek Cypriot, who restores and races antique cars. We tell her about our research project in the mountain villages around Platres where small but fully frescoed churches span 400 years from the 12th to the 16th century. Ten of them form, as UNESCO’s World Heritage report says, “one of the largest groups of churches and monasteries of the former Byzantine Empire.”

Sharon drops us at the hotel around midnight and, standing at the entrance door, we show her the daily itinerary for our visit. She agrees to be our driver for the entire week, and we stagger upstairs to bed. We soon discover that Sharon is not just driver but necessary facilitator. She phones ahead each day to get visiting hours and, in several cases, finds church key-holders to open for us as the only visitors. By the end of the week, Sharon and John are our friends within the ancient protocols of Mediterranean hospitality.

Each day we head out in a different direction from our Platres base with diary for details and camera for pictures. As the week progresses, Sharon notices how we focus in every church on the Life-of-Christ frescoes and especially on the one representing the Resurrection. It is, by the way, only two weeks after Easter, and neon Kalo Pascha signs greet us across the entrance-roads into several of the mountain villages.

One day, in the car on the way home, Sharon announces that she has a question for us. “I see your interest,” she says, “but here is my problem with Easter. When my Mum comes over for the holidays, we always go to the Easter Vigil service in Platres. After the new fire is blessed outside, the fully-robed priest goes to the closed door of the church and attempts to push it open. But the oldest man in the village stands inside and pushes against him. That seems so unfair. Why choose the oldest man in the village to withstand that much younger and stronger priest?”


In our free eBook Easter: Exploring the Resurrection of Jesus, expert Bible scholars and archaeologists offer in-depth research and reflections on this important event. Discover what they say about the story of the resurrection, the location of Biblical Emmaus, Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, the ancient Jewish roots of bodily resurrection, and the possible endings of the Gospel of Mark.


Why indeed? Ten years earlier we would
 have shaken our heads and said that we had
 no idea how to explain the ceremony. But now, in response, we explain in detail why Easter’s symbolism can involve a Stronger One pushing in the door against an Older One. In the Easter Vigil this symbolizes the Risen Christ, a personification of Life, struggling successfully against Hades, personification of Death. In fact, Resurrecting Easter is simply that moment’s explanation writ large—and with pictures! We are able to explain that Easter Vigil action to Sharon because, by April 2012, we are already deeply involved in a project that began a decade earlier in the eastern Anatolian plateau, about 275 miles north of the pine-clad mountains of Cyprus.

✠ ✠ ✠

In April of 2012, as you recall from the opening paragraphs of this book [above], we are in the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus to visit a series of frescoed churches from the 12th to 16th centuries—for, of course, their Anastasis [Greek for “Resurrection”] images. There is also one separate icon that is very special for us because it was the image that first drew us to Cyprus. We know it is in the Church of the Panagia of Amasgou near the village of Monagri (Panagia is Mary Most Holy, but Amasgou is still a puzzlement).

Monagri is just off the main road south to Limassol, so, still jet-lagged that Tuesday, April 24th, we decide that finding our icon is enough for this first afternoon. Our superb guidebook locates the church “on the west bank of the winter river Kourriis” and even shows the tiny edifice fully isolated amid a somewhat vertiginous landscape.**

For a full hour, Sharon drives us up and down unpaved roads trying to correlate the picture in the book with the reality on the ground before returning to Monagri for more precise directions. Then we get it. Our book is from 1985, but the church is completely surrounded by a new monastery for nuns since 1991. It is, in other words, right here hidden within the courtyard of this big building we keep passing.

The complex is now a pilgrimage site, so gaining access is easy—but the icon is not in the church. We check the gift shop, buy a Greek book on the church, see a full-page reproduction of the icon, and take it to an English-speaking nun.

Here is an accurate if abbreviated summary of the conversation between Dominic and Sister No-Nonsense:

Dominic: Where is the icon we see in this book?
Sister: It is in the church.
Dominic: No, Sister, it is not. We looked.
Sister: Then it is not here.
Dominic: But, Sister, it is in this book about your church.
Sister: Why do you want to see it?
Dominic: We are writing a book on the Anastasis.
Sister: Why are you doing that?
Dominic: I am a Biblical theologian.
Sister: But you are a layperson.
Dominic: I was a monk and a priest for a long time.
Sister: Why did you stop?
Dominic: [looks at Sarah]
Sister: Don’t blame her. That’s what Adam did to Eve. It’s your fault, not hers.

Recognizing defeat, we leave amid repeated assertions that there is no such icon in this convent or this church.

The following Monday, at the Byzantine Museum in Nicosia/Lefkosia, we ask Evangelia, an appropriately named curator, about the icon, showing her the reproduction in the Greek book from the church. She telephones a Byzantine expert who insists that it is in the monastery, locked in an upstairs chapel-room, and that the Mother Superior has the key. So it was there all the time, but, unfortunately, we are to return to Larnaca Airport the next day.

Still, having been with Sharon and John Ioannou every day for a week, we are now clients, guests, and friends, so the full force of local Mediterranean networking kicks in immediately. John knows the baker who delivers buns to the guest shop’s snack-bar at the monastery, he contacts the Mother Superior, and Sharon and John take us back to the Panagia of Amasgou on our way to Larnaca Airport.

The icon “not there” on our first Tuesday on Cyprus is miraculously “there” on our last one. It stands along with other icons on a high shelf in a locked corner room on the second floor of the monastery. We are allowed to hold and photograph it.

Christ—note wounds—stands atop the badly abraded cruciform gates of Hades. His left hands hold the usual processional cross. Adam and Eve are to left, David, Solomon, and John the Baptist to right.

All of that is quite usual, but the face of Christ is strikingly unusual … In fact, Christ’s face dominates this entire icon dated between 1175 and 1200.

✠ ✠ ✠

[In the universal tradition of Eastern Christianity’s Anastasis] Jesus usually looks at what he is doing or where he is going, so that his face is usually in profile to the viewer. But in this icon, he looks straight out quite deliberately at you, the viewer. His look announces that, here and now, you too are a member of humanity, a descendant of Adam and Eve, a participant in the universal resurrection.


Subscribers: Read “Resurrecting Easter: Hunting for the Original Resurrection Image” by John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan in the March/April 2019 issue of BAR.

Not a subscriber yet? Join today.


Notes:

* To learn more about early depictions of Jesus’s resurrection, be on the lookout for an upcoming article in Biblical Archaeology Review by John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan. Also, see their book Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision.

** Andreas Stylianou and Judith A. Stylianou, The Painted Churches of Cyprus: Treasures of Byzantine Art (London: Trigraph, for the A. G. Leventis Foundation, 1985), pp. 138–239.


In our free eBook Easter: Exploring the Resurrection of Jesus, expert Bible scholars and archaeologists offer in-depth research and reflections on this important event. Discover what they say about the story of the resurrection, the location of Biblical Emmaus, Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, the ancient Jewish roots of bodily resurrection, and the possible endings of the Gospel of Mark.


This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on March 26, 2018.

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