Friday, July 6, 2007

Part 3: A lack of precedent for Jesus' resurrection?

If you haven't seen it, Loren Rossen has posted a lengthy discussion about the resurrection issues that have been circulating in the blogsphere. You can read his full account here on his blog. He emphasizes that the important matter for the study of early Christianity is that the early Christians believed that Jesus was resurrected.

He writes:
What the disciples believed to have happened should be the crucial question for historians. What actually happened (or did not happen, as the case may be) may be of more burning interest to theologians and scientists.

But Wright is a theologian as much as a historian, as we all know. It's always amazed me how he thinks the lack of precedent for Jesus' resurrection historically validates it. I.e. That since Jewish tradition didn't provide for an individual's resurrection before the end -- especially for a messiah who had gone down in shame -- the Christians wouldn't have made such a far-fetched claim, unless it were actually true. (emphasis mine)
On this point I would like to raise a very interesting passage from the Synoptics. It so happens that this is one of the passages I am writing for the commentary that members of the NT Mysticism Project are collaboratively putting together. It is Matthew 22:23-32. I had volunteered for the passage because of my past work on encratic behavior and the rejection of marriage by many early Christians, and I never expected to come face-to-face with an odd passage about the resurrection. This is a passage I've read a thousand times, but for some reason, when I began working on the logic of the whole pericope, I found that Jesus appears to be arguing for the feasibility of the resurrection because Abraham, Issac and Jacob were resurrected already. Thus Jesus says in Matthew 22:31-32 that the resurrection is proven because scripture says that God IS (not WAS) the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, he IS the God of the living, not the dead.

This same thread is picked up in another story attributed to Jesus (Luke 16:19-31). It is that famous story about the poor man Lazarus who, when he died, was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. A rich man also dies but goes to the torments of Hades. He looks up and sees Abraham far away with Lazarus at his side. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his family to warn them about the place of torment. Abraham tells him that they already know this - they have Moses and the Prophets and should listen to them. Besides he argues, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." Not only do we have here the belief again that Abraham wasn't dead (whether he was resurrected or a spirit is not clear in this passage), but we have a Jewish man who believes it possible for a dead person to rise and go to talk to his family - and this is NOT the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time.

At any rate, I am wondering now about our common assumption that Jews in this time period thought that the resurrection was only an end-of-time event.


Deane said...

I am wondering now about our common assumption that Jews in this time period thought that the resurrection was only an end-of-time event.

This is very interesting. PLEASE keep us posted on this one.

I guess you're suggesting that there's already a tradition around that the great righteous figures (many of them transformed into divine intermediaries, eg Abraham, Moses, Enoch, etc) have overcome death before the end-times. So Jesus, as righteous man, should be expected to resurrect, at least from grave to glory (exaltation Christology). Hmmmm .... and as Jesus also combines Michael's role of defeating death and powers of evil for the great masses of people, he would be expected to resurrect, and to bring the righteous dead with him to paradise (Asc. Isa. 9.17; Odes Sol. 42.11; Apoc. Pet. 17; Origen, Rom 5.10; Acts of Thaddeus, in Eus. HE 1.13.20; Melito new frg 2.17; Armenian Acts of Callistratus 9; the Letter of Abgar to Jesus; Gos. Nic 19.24-25). Later developments, due to the delay of the very end, then included the doctrine of a second coming, minimised or delayed the defeat of Death and Hades, and inserted the earthly resurrection appearances? Just thinking through this to see how it works. I'm probably over-synthesising the different views.

The whole resurrection discussion got me thinking about Protestant rationalist bias against visionary explanations, and I've written up my thoughts here

Leon said...

There is a lot to say about this. Jews in the 1st century certainly did think it was possible for certain individuals to survive death. Elijah is perhaps the most famous case. In a sense, he bypassed death altogether — he went straight from life to heaven, and legend had it that he continued to wander the earth. There was also Enoch from Gen 5:21-24. Because verse 24 ends mysteriously, saying of Enoch "and he was not, for God took him", Jewish legend had it that he too had survived death in some way that made him immortal.

One could also cite the example of King Saul going to a witch to raise one of the dead prophets (was it Samuel?) so he could consult him. Rabbinic literature is full of such stories, e.g., of Moses being woken up from death so he could be informed of something. The story April referred to of Abraham, etc. is also in rabbinic lit. Hyam Maccoby gives a list, in one of his books, of all the Jewish figures that had been resurrected in some way. I'll try to find the reference next time. Also Jon Levenson has something on this.

As for the Gospels, I am always reminding people that they are essentially Jewish dcouments and contain much interesting information about 1st century Jewish beliefs. A passage people often miss is Matt 16:13-14. His disciples tell Jesus that some people think he is John the Baptist (recently killed), others Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. Clearly, there was a popular belief that at least certain dead people (maybe only prophets, maybe the righteous) could rise from the dead.

The story of Jesus' resurrection would not have been novel to 1st century Jews. What was novel to them was taking one concept from the constellation of Jewish beliefs — the Messiah — and making it more important than anything else. This puzzled them.

Leon Zitzer

Leon said...

I found the reference in Hyam Maccoby. See his book "The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity" (1986), p. 125. I'll look for Jon Levenson tomorrow.

Steven Carr said...

Did Moses return from the grave, walks the earth, and ascend to Heaven , never to die again?

If this is not a resurrection, then what is it?

Interestingly whenever Wright discusses this, he always starts talking about ideas that Moses never died.

'Interestingly, when Josephus presents the stories of Elijah, Enoch and Moses, he does so in the language of this hellenistic tradition, declaring that they had not died....' from page 76 of 'Resurrection.'

Ditto on page 95.

Presumably , if Wright can cast doubt on the idea that Moses died, he never has to deal with the idea that Moses returned from the dead, walked the earth and never died again.

And he never does deal with it in 'Resurrection'.

Which lets him claim that returning from the dead, walking the earth, not dying and ascending into Heaven were 'unprecedented'.

Questions for Wright. Did Moses die? Did Moses stop being dead? Did Moses die again?

Remarkably , these questions are not settled in a book supposedly about resurrection.

Steven Carr said...

What really *is* unprecendented is for people to convert to a new religious movement, scoff at the (alledgedly) central belief of this movement, and remain in it as fully accepted members.

The converts to Jesus-worship in Corinth scoffed at the idea that God would choose to raise a corpse.


Another question Wright fobs off with a non-answer in his 'Resurrection' book.

He says that they had a worldview where resurrection was impossible.

But this is just a restatement of the question.

WHY did they have a worldview where resurrection was impossible, given that they had just converted to Jesus-worship?

Loren Rosson III said...


This is an interesting question, and I look forward to hearing more about it. But I remain dubious of finding any solid precedents for individual resurrections before the apocalypse. With regards to the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31), I suspect that Bill Herzog is right, and that the parable originally ended with the phrase "neither will they be convinced if someone should return/come to them from the dead" rather than the reference to the resurrection, "rise from the dead" (Parables as Subversive Speech, p 116).

As for Leon and Stevie, I'm not sure they grasp the distinction between resurrection and ascension of the soul. Leon writes that "Jews in the 1st century certainly did think it was possible for certain individuals to survive death. Elijah is perhaps the most famous case." But no one thought Elijah had been resurrected just because his soul had gone to heaven. He had to wait for the end like anyone else. said...

The whole point of the original prophetic teaching in 1 Cor. 15 was that the rising to glory of a cleansed spirit was instantaneous as soon as the spirit left the body (i.e. at death). This was not at the 'last' trumpet call, but at the trumpet call, i.e. at the moment when God called the spirit of an individual heavenwards. The spirit was not to be kept hanging about in a waiting place below the earth waiting for a decision as to whether it went up or stayed below. The latter was the teaching of the priests. There is little evidence that the Jews believed in bodily resurrection at all. They were only concerned with what happened to their spirits.

The Corinthians didn't convert to Jesus worship. They converted to worship in the cleansing Spirit of God, in effect becoming like prophets.

Steven Carr said...

I see Loren read my comment about Moses and switched it to a comment about Elijah.

Did the Gospel writers believe Moses died, returned from the dead, and walked the earth.

And how did the disciples see a 'soul' at the Transfiguration?

What does a a soul look like? Pretty much like a person?

Jim Deardorff said...

Religious beliefs millennia ago seem to be just as varied as they are today. There seems to have been little or no distinction between souls and ghosts, since both were believed to look like the persons they had been associated with. And little distinction from a resurrected body, I agree, except the latter should be able to hang around a lot longer. A resurrected Jesus should have been able and willing to preach for months on end to all of Jerusalem, converting thousands, without fear of being "killed."

It's not at all unprecedented today for an adherent of a religious movement to scoff at its central beliefs, but remain in it as a fully accepted member, e.g., Marcus Borg.

When the question of who Jesus is was answered as Elijah, Jeremiah or some other prophet, that fits reincarnation better than anything else, and today there is massive evidence supporting its reality.

So what's the point in discussing the nuances of resurrection, either bodily or spiritually, or the belief in being carried bodily to heaven, when they're just confused, mistaken spinoffs from the truth?

Steven Carr said...

It's not at all unprecedented today for an adherent of a religious movement to scoff at its central beliefs, but remain in it as a fully accepted member, e.g., Marcus Borg.

I said 'new' religious movement.

Borg is not a recent convert to Christianity.

Nor was he supposed to have been converted to Christianity by tales of corpses rising.

Read Acts 17 for how later Christians imagined the conversion of resurrection-scoffers did (not) go.

Leon said...

I believe Loren is making too fine a distinction in distinguishing resurrection from anything else. If you are looking specifically for a story of death and resurrection, there is Elisha raising the dead son of a woman (2 Kings 4:32-37) and after Elisha dies, a dead man is resurrected when his body comes into contact with Elisha's bones (2 Kings 13:21).

But all this misses the point. You have to listen to all these stories with 1st century Jewish ears, not with modern theological distinctions. The real point is that Jews believed that some people were so beloved by God that they were given a special death and some sort of eternal life. Moses died by a kiss on the lips from God and was buried by God in a secret place so that no one would ever find him. Elijah rose to heaven in a chariot of fire and his body too was never found. The body of Jesus was never found either (empty tomb).

As I noted above, Matt 16:13-14 (also in Mark and Luke) attests to a popular 1st century Jewish belief that some prophets could come back to life, including the recently deceased John the Baptist. (By the way, it is Elijah who wanders the earth, not Moses. The Jewish belief about Moses was that he was dead, but could be woken up from time to time.)

For Jews who believed in a Messiah and an afterlife, etc. (not all believed these things), when they heard Jesus' story of death and resurrection, their response would not have been "We never heard anything like this before." They certainly had. For them, this was another story about a beloved son of God who had been granted a very special death.

The book by Jon Levenson is "The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity" (Yale University Press, 1993). said...

Of course, as it stands, Mt.22.32 "he is not the God of the dead but of the living" is a nonsense. Every Jew would have thought that the RISEN spirits of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were in the presence of God, because, in a Jewish prophetic context, their spirits were pure. Thus the original text would have been :"He is not the God of the IMPURE but of the PURE." Hence, grasshoppers, the previous discussion about marriage in heaven was concerned with purity. The priests thought that the woman was impure and should therefore should have been kept in a waiting place below the earth for judgement. The prophet's response was to tell the priests they were wrong, not because they did not know the power of god, but because they did not HEAR the SPIRIT of God (knowing was not something Jews did; they either saw or heard). Thus the woman could rise immediately to heaven because the prophet believed that the woman's purity was not about her marriages, but was about the purity of her spirit. She would have been like one of the angels. in heaven. A-women!

Leon said...

As for Geoff's comment immediately above, you are rewriting the text at Matt and you are rewriting Jewish history. The priests were not talking about the purity or impurity of the woman. Most of the priests were Sadducees and they did not believe there was a resurrection or life after death. This was one of their arguments that an afterlife was an impossibility. Jesus is essentially arguing as a Pharisee to prove they are wrong.

That context of a raging debate between Pharisee and Sadducee about whether there was another life also helps to explain Paul and the earliest followers of Jesus. Life after death was not a settled question. That first Jesus community did not experience Jesus' resurrection as a unique phenomenon, isolated by itself. For them, Jesus' resurrection was experienced as part of their hope that the general resurrection was about to begin. It had no separate meaning as a unique event in history.

As Paul says, Jesus' resurrection is connected to the general resurrection which they believed was about to begin: "But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised" (1 Cor 15:13). He repeats this a couple of times and then calls Jesus' resurrection "the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (verse 20).

When history did not end and the general resurrection of the dead did not occur, early Christianity experienced one of its crises, as April explains in her book "Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas" (which I am half-way through). Jesus' death and resurrection then became a completely unique event in history for Christians. But that's not where the belief started. It had become divorced from its original Jewish context. The first Jesus community experienced it in a different way, as part of their expectation about the general resurrection of the dead. Paul makes it very clear in 1 Cor 15 that the two are connected because he lived in a time when he did not know if Pharisees or Sadducees were right about this.

Leon Zitzer

Steven Carr said...
This comment has been removed by the author. said...

Except the woman of Mt.22.30 would not have been like the angels in heaven. Prophets had no need for angels. Interceeding angels were more the concern of priests, as in the DSS. Priests were uncomfortable with the idea of direct communication with God. Why else would they have been priests? Hence they sacrificed and they believed in a waiting place below the earth for spirits of the dead -spirits which the priests would have considered impure because they had left bodies.

So, the woman's spirit would have been like God in heaven, i.e. pure.

Leon, Pharisees and Saducees did not exist at the time of the prophet. They are not in the DSS or Philo. They were simply retrojected into the prophetic original texts of the NT and into the original writings of Josephus. In most instances, references to Pharisees in Josephus are clearly later interpolations. Jacob Neusner is reluctant to attribute even the earliest stratum of rabbinic literature to the Pharisees. Thus Josephus's original discussions about so-called Jewish sects were simply descriptions of the long-standing two orders of Jewish leaders, namely priests and prophets, written for the benefit of his gentile readers, note. It was Judas the prophet (not the Galilean) who Josephus was introducing in those discussions.
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