Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.
Without looking it up, how many people know John F. Kennedy’s birthdate? Now, how many know the date on which he died? Most people over a certain age can not only recall the date, but can relate, in great detail, where they were when they heard the news, and even those who weren’t living at the time still know the date and circumstances. Numerous conspiracies surround the Kennedy assassination, including the rumor that JFK actually survived, and lived for many years afterward as an invalid. JFK looms largest in our memories not for what he did — in fact, for his day, he was a typical politician — but for what he might have done.
So, which is more important, that a person lived or that this person died? Dying isn’t something unusual for biological entities. In fact, it’s the one thing all living things have in common, that one day we shall all die. We hear of people dying “before their times” but in fact, the moment of one’s death is exactly one’s time. People who are fortunate to live long, productive lives, are often celebrated instead of being mourned, though the loss is just as permanent as someone who dies in his or her twenties without having lived up to his or her full potential. Everyone has heard of the “27 Club” of performers who tragically died at age twenty-seven, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. Ironically, some artists, such as Hendrix and Tupak Shakur, were more prolific after their deaths than before, having left behind a considerable body of work that had not been produced.
The Apostle Paul was a contemporary of and interacted with the Jerusalem Church run by Jesus’s disciples, and since he was an adult while writing his epistles around 50 CE, he would have been alive during the events depicted in the Gospels. Despite this, he rarely talks about the life or teachings of Jesus, but of the resurrection of the Christ; “…if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14, NIV). In fact, the path to salvation presented in 1 Corinthians 15, totally excludes following the teachings of Jesus: Christ died; was buried; rose from the dead. All followers need to do is believe that. It wasn’t for nearly twenty years following the writings of Paul that Mark, acknowledged by most scholars as the first Gospel, is believed to have been written, depicting the life events of a man identified in the original Greek as Jesus. His actual name was most likely Yeshua or Jeshua, and this name has also come into English as Joshua, which is the name of the Biblical hero who led the conquest of Canaan. Which means there were likely lots of guys named Yeshua running around Palestine at the time.
Many people seem to give more importance to Jesus’s death than to his life. To many, it doesn’t matter that Jesus is quoted as saying, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, or “Love your neighbor as yourself”, or “Turn the other cheek”. One of the debates in the early church was whether faith alone or faith with good deeds guaranteed salvation (James 2:14-26) and James seems to attach much importance to one’s deeds. This debate was one of the issues that sparked the Protestant Reformation centuries later, and Martin Luther declared that faith alone is the path to salvation. Just as an early, unexpected death heightened the importance of JFK’s presidency, Jesus’s death seems to have inspired many stories and rumors among followers and detractors about what happened and what it all meant. We’ve seen many examples of this in the modern era, whenever someone dies unexpectedly or under mysterious circumstances.
We need look no further than the rumors and iconography surrounding Elvis Presley to see similarities to the rumors and legends that evolved into the Gospels. Just like Jesus, Elvis was a charismatic individual, said to have survived or returned following his “death” and there are many elaborate theories about how and why Elvis faked his death and how and when he plans to reveal himself to his followers, all of which seem less and less likely as time goes on. Elvis Presley was born in 1935, and even if he is somehow still around, would be eighty-three years old today. It’s highly unlikely he’d still be performing in Vegas even if he’s alive. There are still many people who were here when Elvis walked the Earth. We live in a media obsessed culture and have plenty of official reports to confirm Elvis’s death, and only vague rumors of people who claim to have seen him alive after August of 1977. Still the rumors persist. People obviously saw Jesus crucified; it’s stated that the women who surrounded him held vigil nearby and went to prepare his body after the Sabbath. The author of the Gospel of Matthew alludes to some of the rumors surrounding the disappearance of his body, and mentions that the guards at the tomb were paid off by the high priest to say Jesus’s followers stole his body (Matthew 28:11-15). Why would Matthew need to mention that fact if there weren’t rumors floating around about it?
Everything living will someday die, that’s the cold hard fact. No one likes to think of that possibility and everyone wants to believe that somehow, there’s a way to avoid it. No one can definitively say what becomes of us when we die. For many, a “better” world is waiting; for others, we simply drift off into nothingness. We like to think that those who died early are somehow waiting somewhere for the perfect time to reveal it was all a hoax. Many people are certain Andy Kaufman is doing just that, but given how much he liked to “play” the audience, he’d probably be amused at how many people believe he’s still alive. Perhaps, rather than focusing on a person’s death, it’s more instructive to examine how that person lived, for better or worse, to gain lessons on how we can better conduct our affairs.
For the record, John F. Kennedy was born 29 May 1917. I admit, I had to look it up.