Thursday, July 27, 2006


Wright and the Resurrection

This is the fourth post on the article The daybreak of the new creation: Christ's resurrection in recent theology by G. Hunsinger (links to post 1, post 2 and post 3). In this note I shall be briefly commenting on some of N.T. Wright ideas.

In particular, there is this statement, taken from Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG), that is especially intriguing:
The only possible reason why early Christianity began and took the shape it did is that the tomb really was empty and that people really did meet Jesus, alive again.
I am not very much at ease with the logic of such a conclusion, nor with the adverb only.

aside, it seems to me that, if we take the statement on its own, the logic of the argument is flawed (or, more precisely, the argument does not necessarily conveys a true statement, as in "if A, then certainly B") in the adverb really. Try to substitute "really was empty" with "was believed to be empty", and "really did meet Jesus" with "thought to have met Jesus". Or even with "was said to be empty", and with "reported they had met Jesus", respectively. Why would the argument in these cases be more or less true than in the original formulation? But the validity of the argument rests on its premises and not on its direct logic, one could say - and one can quickly read about these premises for instance in Wrigth's article Jesus' Resurrection and Christian Origins. (besides RSG, that is.)

Now, the question is, is Resurrection really a foundational motive, or does it point to a "later narratival adaptation of early Christian theology"? - in other words, do we move from resurrection to Christology, or from Christology to resurrection? Can we draw a sharp line between the two? Can we say anything definitive on this?

My point here is that I fail to see a convincing argument to prove (as this seems Wright's intention, looking at the tenor of his statement above - but cmp. instead lines like "I would not pretend to have found an argument that would force a sceptic to admit that Jesus ‘must have’ been raised from the dead", in Jesus Resurrection and Christian Origins) the first hypothesis, compared to the hypothesis that the resurrection account(s) can't be fully traced on a purely historical level, or that it was a later development, for example devised to make sense of the meaning of Jesus' death and/or of the failed expectations of the disciples.

Which one is more probable, from the historian point of view? Here I share Moltmann's view that
Judgements of faith cannot be founded on historical judgements based on probability (Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, p.214)
Wright maintains that the historical explanation of the Resurrection is the most probable, and apparently he is so convinced of this truth to state that from it the characteristics of Christianity by necessity completely derive. I think that there are valid counter arguments to this position.

For instance, why is it that Mark, i.e. the earliest gospel, does not contain post resurrection narratives? Actually, before Mark was written, we have the testimony of Paul in 1 Cor 15:3-8, speaking of the Resurrection of Christ. This testimony seems to be older than 1 Cor itself ("I handed on to you [...] what I in turn had received"), and there is not much convergence with Mark's account except for the sheer fact that Jesus "was raised": no empty tomb, no mention of women, let alone of the command not to disclose what the witnesses had seen. Let us also note that the post-resurrection events themselves mentioned in 1 Cor can't really be labeled as "narrative", for they are just listed without details pertaining to time, nature, or location. On the other hand, Mark seems to state that there will be at least one post-resurrection appearence, located precisely in Galilee, repeating what was already announced in Mk 14:28 - but he does not recount details of this appearance (as a matter of fact, what Mk 14:28 and Mk 16:7 recount might also be simply a description of the parousia of Christ - believed to be imminent, and to occur in Galilee).

So, assuming that a resurrection story was already circulating before 1 Cor was written, and that it is to this resurrection story that both Mark and Paul refer, what are we to make of the dissimilarities? It looks Paul does not know of the empty tomb (where did Mark get this from then?), nor Mark seems to know of the many post-resurrection events mentioned by Paul; on the other hand, Mark locates the one event he knows in Galilee, while Paul does not provide any detail pertaining to locations. Why is that so?

There's more when we come to examine the Resurrection as told by the other evangelists. Matthew and Luke clearly base their story on Mark, but add a significant number of details. Some of these seem patently to be apologetic in nature (e.g. the guardians in Matthew - which prevents skeptics to say that Jesus' disciples had stolen the body), but what is also interesting are the diverging details between Matthew/Luke and Mark (e.g. in Matthew the women do indeed recount what they had seen), or between Matthew and Luke themselves (e.g. Luke sets the location of the post-resurrection event not in Galilee, but around Jerusalem). Then, John 20-21 seems to combine both traditions, of Galilean and of Jerusalem appearances. Why is that so?

It seems to me that, given this evidence, it is difficult to posit strict historical reliability of the Resurrection accounts. There were clearly editorial changes and additions, due to various reasons: apologetic, doctrinal (cf. the much quoted anti-docetic Luke 24:39ff with the exhortation to touch Jesus' hands and feet), and political. For this last point, cf. for example the insistence of Mark with Galilee, symbol of the Gentile world, and the stress on leadership roles attributed to the original disciples in post-resurrection events, e.g. Jewish Christianity - not present in Mark (more interested in Gentile Christianity), but present in the other gospels. (for more details, including discussions on the significance of the Markan ending [was Mk 16:8 the true ending, etc], see Telford, The Theology of the Gospel of Mark, pp.137-51.)

Is the real core then, that is Resurrection itself, historically reliable, leaving aside post-resurrection events, empty tombs, role of women, locations, relaying or not relaying of the event, post-Easter authority issues, etc, i.e. all the elements that is not easy to fit into a coherent and consistent structure? Wright's argument, in the end, is reduced to saying that it was most unlikely that somebody could invent Resurrection as "Jesus raising from the dead", because this - from a strictly historical point of view - would have been too strange. (and if you read this transcript of a BBC Belief programme, featuring an interview with N.T. Wright, you will see that he adopts a parallel line of reasoning to justify the Virgin Birth story.)

But had it been really such a foundational historical event, why would the original sources leave out all-important details about it? Wasn't it to be the climax of the entire story? Why were later gospels (canonical or apocryphal, for the latter cf. the Gospel of Peter or the Gospel of the Hebrews) required to "fill-in gaps"? Or, in a less skeptical tone, couldn't Resurrection be intended as a special event, transcending the simple category of history, and of historical validation? I tend to agree with Frei, when he writes that
It is not likely that successive generations of critics will agree on what is probable fact in the Gospel accounts. The criteria for historical reliability in regard to the Gospel story will – in the absence of external corroborations – always rest on shifting grounds (Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ, p.141).
And with Moule:
The birth and rapid rise of the Christian Church [...] remain an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the Church itself (Moule, The Phenomenon of the New Testament, p.13)
And it is to Frei, Moule, Moltmann, and in general to what Hunsinger calls the eschatological view, that I intend to turn in my next post on this subject.

Great to see your blog back in action, Davide -- and I'm very sorry to hear about your recent accident.
You raise many important points and puzzles about the resurrection appearances in the Gospels, compared to Paul.

Many people in Thessalonica and Corinth converted to Jesus-worship, but denied the resurrection, believed that the dead were lost, and were baffled at the idea of a corpse rising from the grave. (with what sort of body?

What drew them to Christianity?

Why did many early Christians have to be told about the resurrection? Did they not belive the words of the person they worshipped in Matthew 22?

Why would Paul say flat-out 'the last Adam became a life-giving spirit' (pneuma), when Luke 24 (as you point out) argues against that very thing?

The answer is pretty clear.

Early Christians believed Jesus was a god, became human, and then returned to being a god after he died. He had been resurrected.

It was like Zeus turning into a swan and then turning back into Zeus.

That would be proof that the seemingly oridinary looking swan had been Zeus all along.

See Romans 1:1-4 where it is the resurrection which proves that Jesus had been God (or Phiippians 3, where Jesus is exalted *after* death)

But could mere mortals follow the path of Jesus?

They were not gods, and so could not live on after death as Jesus had.

Paul answers these questions in 1 Corinthians 15, by telling people that they too have a body of spirit, as well as our body of flesh and blood, which will die, just as Jesus flesh and blood body had died.

I have more at The resurrection of Jesus
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