The Re- of Resurrection

The argument in this essay is that whoever put the re- prefix on resurrection did us no favors. We’ll see. Despite the imminent onset of the Lenten season, this is not a doctrinal investigation. This is a linguistic investigation. There is, of course, a doctrinal background, but the problem is going to boil down, eventually, to how to describe three things in a word that is able to point to only two things.

In Christian circles, the notion of the resurrection of Jesus is important for several reasons. One has to do with his own resurrection, sometimes called “The” Resurrection. He was alive, as everyone knows, then he was dead for awhile and then he was alive again. [1] The second reason Christians think of this as an important event is that it is taken to be the first of many, as if some wall had been breached and now that it was open, everyone could go through.

Resurrection has also been contentious among Christians because, on the one hand, there seems no way to understand it and, on the other, no way to do without it. As I have thought about it recently, it seems to me that the part of the word I am having trouble with is the first part: re-. If it means “again,” which it most often does, then something is like it was before. There are three stages required here: it was, then it was’t, now it is again. That’s “re-”

Three words are common in the re- business. I thought it might be worth while to check out the root metaphors. These metaphors were devised by people who, like us, want to give a sense of what has happened or could happen, but can’t describe it more exactly. The three words I have in mind are: reanimate, resuscitate, and resurrect. [2]

The Etymological Infrastructure

Animate looks straightforward. The Latin anima, now often used as an English word thanks to Jung, means “what makes us alive.” It is what “animals” have in common; they all have anima. They are animate (slipped an adjective in there) because they have been animated. Just how they were animated depends largely on what kind of animal we are talking about, but since we care about the word rather than the beast, it doesn’t really matter.

For anything to meet the requirements of the word “reanimate,” it must have been animate, and then not animate, and then animate again. The word needs those three steps. That doesn’t sound too hard. We look up what anima meant in Latin and we are almost home. But when you look it up—I use the Webster’s New World Dictionary phone app for nearly everything on the first pass—you discover that it meant “breath, air, life principle, or soul.” The first two aren’t that hard—we know what breath and air are—but what are the “life principle” or the “soul.” Are they the kinds of things you can have and then lose and then get back? I don’t think the etymology helps us here.

Maybe resuscitate will be better. We have the familiar re-, with its little three step test, and the Latin verb suscitare, “to arouse.” I had a quick hope, just as quickly dashed, that there might be a relationship between the sus- of suscitare and the suss of “So, you sussed it out, did you?” [3] But the actual source of “resuscitate” leaves us with only another video of what happened. Something was aroused and then not—dormant, inert, dead?—and then “aroused” again. Resuscitation as an empirical matter is not at all uncommon. Aren’t we resuscitated from sleep every morning? Who has not wakened a person from an unconscious inert position and seen the “resuscitation” firsthand?

That brings us to resurrect and to a new metaphor. The Latin verb is surgere, “to rise up.” Of course a lot of things can rise up. Waves can, springs can, voltage can, underdogs can. [4] Rising up is not a particularly animate thing, which distinguishes the root metaphor from both animate and suscitate; rather it is a low to high thing. Anything that can move quickly from low to high can “surge” and the second time it does it, it has “resurged” (actually an English word, which I have never encountered before.) The old tagline, “The South shall rise again” could be rendered “the South shall resurge,” but of course, when you say it out loud, you see why it shouldn’t.

We have completed the etymological infrastructure now. I found it interesting and informative, but not very helpful as a theological matter. Biblically, the big distinction is between resuscitation and resurrection. As a matter of metaphors, it requires us to choose between “arousal” and “surging up” and there is no rationale at all to guide us. As a matter of the significance of those events themselves, there is a lot to guide us, so let’s turn to that.

Resuscitation and Resurrection

Here we have to confront the difference between the words and the meanings. Only resuscitation can properly use re- as a prefix. Resurrection does not postulate a “going back” to anything, but a going on to something. This something happens after death, so we need a prefix the points forward. We have several, though so far as I know, none has been used so solve this problem. At the very least, we have trans- from the Latin collection and meta- from the Greek collection. Why not use one of those? Here is why we need to distinguish them.

Resuscitation is the postponement of death. Resurrection is “something else.” I’m not sure just what the “else” is, but as we look at the development of the stories, I think we will see that the early tellers and re-tellers were more interested in what meanings it excluded than they were with exactly what meaning it specified.

I wouldn’t want to say that resuscitation—“unexpected arousal”—stories are a dime a dozen in scripture, but there are too many of them to try to cover. Let’s remember that we are looking at the three stage “re-” pattern and let’s try it on Jesus’ friend Lazarus, as John tells the story in chapter 11. Lazarus was alive and then he was dead and then Jesus “raised him from the dead” and he was alive again.

That’s the way the story goes. But notice that when we say “raised” (a low to high word) to describe the resuscitation (an inert to aroused word) of Lazarus, we have mixed the two root metaphors. I don’t think that’s a big deal—or at least, I didn’t before today—but it would be tidier if we kept them together. If we did that, we would say that Lazarus was “aroused from the dead” (following suscitare) and that Jesus was “raised from the dead” (following surgere).

In any case, there is a fourth step to resuscitation, which is that you die again. The “arousal” doesn’t last; It is a postponement of death, not a transcendence of it or a revocation of it or whatever else the New Testament writers might mean. Resuscitation is a good thing to the extent that being alive is better than being dead.

In the biblical sense, however, resurrection brings us to new ground. Resurrection is not a temporary reanimation. The word describes a new status entirely. And that brings us to ask why reaching a completely new level of life is described by a word beginning with re-. Why is that?

I think the language problem we are facing here is that we have only one visual reference. We do have “living;” we know what it looks like. If you want to point to a new status—a life beyond death—you have to say either that it looks just like the old life or that it looks like something new.

Resuscitate works just fine for returning to the common referent. Lazarus is “alive again, just as he was before.” But Jesus is not “alive again just as he was before;” he is alive in a different way entirely. Theologically, just what that new way is, is crucially important, but linguistically, the problem is that it is new and that means we can’t use re- to describe it.

Are there other terms we could use?

We could use a Latin prefix like trans-, which points to a crossing over, rather than to a coming back. The Greek meta- is even better with its principal meaning of “beyond.” But if we use those, we lose the common referent, which is what re- gives us. “Re-“ says, “Remember what living looks like? He has come back to it.” “Meta-“ says, “He has gone beyond what we know, whatever state that implies.” Surely that is not very satisfying.

A partial solution is to make the referent “death,” rather than “life,” and we could say not that Jesus “returned to life” but that he “transcended death.” I call it a partial solution because it doesn’t really tell us anything. On the other hand, it avoids a word we already know is wrong. Jesus was not re- anything. But he was meta- something. He went “beyond” death.

The Greek noun thanatos, “death” is an available word for this purpose. If we latched the Greek prefix meta- to it, it would enable us to define the experience of Jesus not as a “return” to life—which we know is not correct—but as a “going on beyond death,” which is correct as far as it goes, even though it doesn’t tell us what “beyond death” is like. Besides that, it would require the development of some truly ugly words, like metathanatos for “resurrection” and we might even have to say that Jesus was metathanatized; he was “beyond deathed.” Word like that seem a high price to pay just for being right.

If we want to skip references to life and death entirely, we can say that the Jesus who appeared to his disciples after his death had experienced “metamorphosis” or “transformation.” The combination of prefix and root is identical; the difference is that metamorphosis uses the Greek morphē, (form) while transformation uses the Latin forma. The good thing is that these are already common English words pointing to a fundamental change of “form.” The bad thing is that in concentrating of the form, we lose the focus on life and death, which is also fundamental to these ideas.

Maybe this is going to be one of those language problems where you have to say X and it’s OK to do that if you remember that Y is actually the case. We do, after all, say that the sun rises, when we all know that the earth turns. Maybe we could just say that the Son also rises.

[1] This had a substantial impact on his followers, who went very quickly from people who had high hopes, but had been deeply disappointed in how things worked out, to people who were exultant and began making nuisances out of themselves.
[2] I have chosen to work with the verb forms because it is the action of becoming something again, not the state of having become something again, I want to look at.
[3] Alas, suss is an altered contraction of suspect and has been with us for only the last 50 years. The sus- of suscitare is actually sub- (under) where by linguistic convention, the b- of sub assimilates to the s- of suscitare and disappears except for etymological inquiries. The other part of suscitare is the Latin verb, citare, “to arouse,” and if you think it looks familiar, it is probably because you have seen it in incite and done it in recite.
[4] The crack about the voltage meter reminded me that anyone who uses computers knows about “surge protectors.” And since there is a religious background to the use of resurrection, not to its core meaning, it leads my mind to what the Sadducees and the Romans would have given for a really good “surge protector” early in the first century A. D.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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