“Corpus delicti” is a Latin legal term. Translated is means, “The body of the crime.”
It is the evidence that proves that a crime has been committed, which is necessary before anyone can be convicted of that crime. In the case of a murder, of course, that body of evidence is literally a dead body! Without that direct evidence it can be very difficult to prove that a crime has actually been committed.
The next day their rulers, elders and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.
The whole ruling caste of the people of Israel comes together. They assemble as a court of law, and Peter and John are brought in before them. Alongside them is present a man who used to beg beside the Beautiful Gate at the Temple. This formerly lame man is shown to the court as corpus delicti. He is the body of evidence against Peter and John that a crime has been committed.
But what crime can the body of a man restored to health be evidence of? What could be said to be malicious or harmful in the intentions and actions of Peter and John. Peter’s initial testimony to the court quite rightly points out that he and John have been brought before this court for a good deed. What they have done is cure this man of his affliction. They have brought to an end a condition that had left this man trapped in his body with no option but to depend on the kindness of strangers for his existence. They had liberated this man so that now set free he could be a full and positive participant in society. There is no way round it. It is not possible to spin the evidence of a man who was crippled and healed as a bad thing. It really doesn’t matter what Peter and John’s motives or justifications were. The power or the name which they claim to have used is irrelevant. The body of evidence before the court is that a good deed was done, not that a crime has been committed.
The lame beggar’s former condition and the care which it provoked from some of the temple worshippers might have been used, in a limited way, as a demonstration of the goodness of God. It might have been said that the intersection of his suffering and the willingness of passers-by to help was a good thing. Indeed the Jewish tradition has a term for such a situation, it is called “Mitsvah.” Literally, a good deed done out of religious duty is a “blessing.” But if preventing his starvation when he was lame and unable to fend for himself by giving him money had been a blessing, how much more of a blessing, how much stronger evidence of God’s goodness, is his restoration to health?
That this man was lame and is now healed is evidence not of a crime, but is in fact powerful evidence of the goodness of the God they are supposed to represent. Indeed this man is the very embodiment of what they expected to see on the Day of the Lord when God’s power breaks into the world to rule. This man is a living proclamation of Good News: He is the poor who has had good news announced to him. He is captive who has been released, the prisoner who has gone free. He is the lame who now walks. And what is more his response to what happened to him was to praise God. He is the very living definition of what happens when God’s power breaks into the world.
The chief priests know this, or at least they should. Howsoever it is brought about, all healing comes from God. It doesn’t matter who did it, or what mechanism they used, or what was their supposed motive, the credit must always go back to God. That is as essential to the priests’ view of God, as it is to Peter and John, as it should be for us. Any healing is always a good thing, which is why it can and it should be ascribed to God. Which is why the man standing alongside Peter and John, if he is “corpus delicti” the body of evidence, he is not evidence of any crime which they have committed since a good deed cannot be a crime.
The problem for the chief priests is that the man’s restoration to health is evidence of a crime. There is a crime here, but is not one which Peter and John have committed. The man standing in court, restored to health points to a different corpus delicti which is the evidence of the chief priest’s crime. He points to a second body which is missing. He points to another body which is actually absent, a body which should be in a tomb on the other side of the city, but isn’t. The man’s presence points to Jesus’ absence. His health is the evidence of their crime, that they had had a hand in killing the Messiah.
It is clear that their problem is not so much that the man has been healed, but who is getting the credit. They demand of Peter and John:
“By what power or by what name did you do this?”
They are anxious because they already know the answer. And there is no way for them to prevent their crime becoming exposed. Their actions as it turns out are entirely counterproductive, because all they do is provide Peter with an opportunity to proclaim the gospel. Moved by the Holy Spirit he replies to them:
“. . . let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.”
Peter preaches to the assembled leaders of the nation. His testimony to them is a sermon. And his sermon assumes the basic shape of Christian proclamation: Jesus was rejected. God has raised Jesus from the dead. Therefore Jesus is the way in which you can be restored to God.
We know that Jesus’ death and resurrection lie at the heart of Christian proclamation. The cross is the corpus delicti. The death of Jesus is the body of evidence which demonstrates all crime. The cross is the point where all human alienation from God and all human wickedness that stems from it is gathered together in one place. The cross is the place where human wilfulness finally tries to push God out of the world and do as it pleases. It is evidence of the chief priests’ crime, because they reject the one God has sent to them. It is evidence of Empire’s crime because it tries to rule in God’s world and uses death and violence to do it. It is evidence of all our crimes, because we all have our own share in the denial of God which takes Jesus to the cross.
Jesus’ resurrection establishes that that crime is real. God’s restoration of Jesus to life shows that: The chief priests are wrong, the one they reject is indeed the one God was sending to them. It shows that they had place their trust in a god of the own making which served their own purposes. The Empire is wrong, the true power in this world in not death and violence but life and peace. It shows that those who have ruled in the world not by accepting that their authority belongs to God, and have usurped God by trying to rule for themselves in their own power. And we are all wrong in our resistance to God. It shows we have allowed all sorts of other things than our loyalty to God to determine the shape of our lives, with the disastrous consequences which we see all around us. This corpus delicti indicts Peter and John just as clear as it does the chief priests, Empire and us. But Peter and John have accepted this message and have seen what it really means.
A crime has been committed. Endless crimes have been committed. But in the grace of God those actions do not have the last word. Jesus’ resurrection is also the means which God provides to be restored to God. The proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection which provides the means for a crippled man to be restored to health. The proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection provides the means for religious people to be turned back to the true and living God, rather serving the one of their own making. The proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection provides the means for authority to be exercised in the world for the benefit of all people and all creation. The proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection provides the means for us to live the lives which God intended for us, filled with goodness against which there can be no law.
As corpus delicti the gospel is strange. It both proves that a crime has been committed, and convicts us of our guilt of it But is also what sets us free from that crime. Peter neatly summarises what the gospel shows us, in the final sentence of his sermon:
“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
Corpus Delicti by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0