Thursday, July 5, 2007

Part 1: Did the Resurrection Happen?

James Crossley has a wonderful post taking on N.T. Wright's polemic against him. It is too long to quote, as it N.T. Wright, so take a look here at the banter.

For what my two cents might be worth on this topic, I insist that whether or not the resurrection actually happened, is not a question that needs to concern historians for several reasons.

1. Because of biology. Dead bodies remain dead. They are not physically brought back from the dead after three days, two days, one day, or otherwise. It is a theological argument to say otherwise, and it can never be made into anything other than a theological argument.

2. If a historian studying any other person than Jesus made the claim that such-and-such person came back from the dead, what would we think of that historian? Especially if the reason to believe such a claim was because many people say they witnessed it and were willing to die for it? How many people are willing to die for things they think have happened, are happening, or will happen? This doesn't mean they have happened, are happening, or will happen. It means that human beings believe all kinds of things that didn't or can't happen, even to the point of dying for that belief. This is a psychological issue, not a historical one. By the way, in case we should forget, there were a lot of Christians who were not willing to die for their beliefs and opposed those who did.

3. I think we are asking the wrong question, and getting bogged down (yet again) in theology. What matters for the historical study of early Christianity is that the early Christians thought/believed/promoted/remembered/taught that Jesus had risen, not whether it "really" happened. It is the belief that is foundational to understand the early Christian movement. It tells us that it was an apocalyptic movement with strong eschatological factors, including the belief that Jesus' resurrection had begun the events of the last days - he had inaugurated the general resurrection (i.e. Matthew's wonderful story of the holy men and women in Jerusalem, and Paul's comment that he was the "first" to rise).

In other words, if we grant that "something" happened, that some of the early Christians experienced something, they went on to interpret it according to their Jewish expectations and traditions at hand. If we don't grant this, then we have to say they made it up, which I am less likely to think given what I have studied about religious experiences and the hermeneutical processes that follow such experiences. I continue to make detailed studies of human memory - both individual and collective - as well as the processes by which stories are created and spread within an environment dominated by an oral consciousness. All of this scientific data - if studied without theological blinders - supports the fact that stories and memories about things does not mean that the thing as it is told or interpreted actually happened the way it was told or interpreted (or happened at all)!

4. If some early Christians experienced something (after-death dream? visions? or some other naturalistic possibility?), what it meant was NOT immediately the same for all of them. Not all of them thought it was a physical-material body that they encountered. Luke tells us that some thought it was a ghost, but not him - Luke has Jesus eat a piece of fish to prove Luke's own belief in the physicality of Jesus' resurrection and to polemicize against the ghost interpretation. John does not tell us that it was a physical body, at least not the same one Jesus had before his death. It may have had some corporeality (which spiritual bodies were thought to have - see Tertullian on this), but it was also a body that could walk through walls! Paul opts for a spiritual body, not a material one, as the resurrected body, a point that later Christian Gnostics like the Valentinians point out and develop. The fleshly interpretation is one that eventually came to dominate and win the day, but it took almost two centuries for that to happen.


Steven Carr said...

Paul thought it idiotic even to discuss how a corpse can turn into a resurrected being.

Wright's only comment on this passage (at least in his resurrection book) is that Paul was resorting to 'abuse'

Well, you idiot, there is abuse and there is abuse.

Paul was not just calling some people idiots (as I did just there for rhetorical effect)

To Paul , all that discussion of how corpses can come back was idiotic.

Paul reminds the Corinthians that earthly beings were made of different materials to heavenly beings, and were as different as a fish is from the moon.

Only an idiot would discuss how a fish can turn into the moon.

Calling people foolish wss not just exasperated abuse, as Wright claims.

It is part of a chain of thought - a chain of thought that Wright's beliefs do not allow him to follow.

John Noyce said...

How do scholars of early Christianity handle the well-established tradition of Jesus Christ (Issa)'s death in Kashmir in India, ie after the Resurrection?
The historical texts usually cited for this are available online:

Bryan L said...


Out of curiosity, when does a claim that someone rose from the dead become a theological argument?

For instance if I claimed that someone I knew rose from the dead and then disappeared would it be a theological argument? Should a historian (or anyone concerned with validating whether something really happened or not like the police) not be concerned with whether it really happened or not?

Is it only when someone basis their beliefs and actions in life on that claims of resurrection or puts a divine purpose behind someone rising from the dead that something becomes theological?

Similarly if someone claims that aliens crashed in Roswell, New Mexico decades ago would that be considered a theological argument since we have no evidence that aliens exist? Should a historian not trouble themselves with questions about whether aliens crashed here on Earth because we have no real evidence just supposed eyewitnesses?

Just some questions that I was wondering(they aren't rhetorical but me really wondering and wanting to better understand your views).

Bryan L

Steven Carr said...

Bryan makes a good point.

And dead bodies do not remain dead.

People have died and been revived by modern science.

Perhaps though, that just makes the modern definition of 'death' a bit fuzzy? said...

As I wrote on Mark Goodacre's Weblog, in a contemporary context, the only things that had power in bodies were spirits, be it the spirit of truth or the spirit of deceit, as per the DSS - the only sure evidence. These two spirits waged war with each other.

Thus before Romans was 'Paulinised', I believe the original prophetic writer of Romans 7.22-24 would have written something like this:

7.22. For in my SPIRIT OF TRUTH I delight in God’s SPIRIT;

7.23. but I see another SPIRIT at work in the members of my body, waging war against MY SPIRIT OF TRUTH, making me a prisoner of the SPIRIT of DECEIT at work within my members.

7.24.What a wretched man I am!
Who will rescue me from this SPIRIT of DECEIT?

Rescue would come when the spirit of truth left the body at death to rise to glory.

Thus the original writer and recipients of the original Epistle to the Romans understood that when its animating spirit departed, the body died. A question that the original epistle answered, was not concerned with the body being raised up, but with what happened to a spirit that left a body. Would it rise to glory, or would it be condemned?

Resurrection was a Pauline afterthought, hardly arguable in a Jewish context at all, but certainly arguable in the context of the Roman imperial cult.

A better question would be: Did the birth happen?
NTW may say a lot, but the Jesus Project wants five years to discuss whether or not Jesus was real? Makes NTW look pretty tame.

The link looks like a gathering of vultures to devour the corpse of of NTW.

Anonymous said...

I find it disturbing that when it comes to scholars one agrees with, they are producing a 'response' or a 'discussion', but when it comes to scholars one does not agree with it is always 'polemic' or 'propaganda'.

Please, can't we keep the exchange of views on the same playing field?

I hope that appeal to biology was not meant to be taken seriously. The facts of biology are based on repeatable events and inferences from statistical data. By definition a unique event like a resurrection does not fall under the biological paradigm. Repeated experience with 'dead bodies staying dead' might produce a strong mental aversion to the idea of a resurrection (as Wright points out, this held for the ancients as much as modern people; ancients knew that when people died, their bodies were just corpses), but it means nothing one way or the other about whether such a thing is possible, which will depend on what one thinks is the ultimate explanation for the existence of the universe.

Steven Carr said...

ancients knew that when people died, their bodies were just corpses

Presumably this was the argument of the Jesus-worshippers in Corinth who scoffed at the idea of God choosing to raise a corpse.

And perhaps also the Jesus-worshippers in Thessalonika , who were also concerned about corpses, although that is less certain.

Jim Deardorff said...

I would suggest that those not governed by theological commitment follow the lead of John Noyce above. Just because there are several different hypotheses on how "Jesus" may have survived the crucifixion does not excuse the real scholar from looking into the evidence that he did. said...

If you were to believe the science fiction of 1 Cor.15:42, then God 'sows' bodies. Of course in the original prophetic document, it wasn't the body that God sowed, but the spirit in the body. And it wasn't that earthly bodies were made of different materials from heavenly bodies, but spirits in bodies were impure (thus the two spirits as per the DSS) whereas spirits that were raised to glory were pure. Thus it was purity of spirit that was of concern, not bodily material.

And it wasn't that: 'flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God' (15:50), but that impure spirits cannot enter the heaven of God.

And it wasn't that: 'we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed in a flash' (15:51). It was: You will not sleep but you will be raised in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye at the trumpet call (not the last trumpet). For the trumpet will sound, and the spirit (not the dead) will be raised.

Thus, in a Jewish context, note, there was to be no hanging around in a waiting place for judgement. Each spirit would be raised for judgement as soon as the body died.

The sting of death was not sin, but judgement (15:56).

James Crossley said...

Thanks April!

I find myself more and more coming to the same kinds of conclusions on the issue of historical practice. There are *always* plenty of alternatives to supernatural explanations. Consequently, it becomes futile to try and explain things with reference to supernatural which can hardly be measured or analysed in a meaningful (in terms of historical reconstruction) way.

Steven Carr said...

Thus it was purity of spirit that was of concern, not bodily material.

This was not Paul's view.

Paul's view was that 'Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of god'.

1 Corinthians 15 is all about the material that bodies are made of, not about 'pure' and 'impure' spirits. (Pneuma is always pure for Paul)

Should I quote?

39All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

47The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. 48As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.

50I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.....

It is all about material.

The Corinthians were idiots for discussing how a corpse could rise, because it was made of the wrong sort of material to enter the kingdom of God.