David Jenkins, the former bishop of Durham, created an uproar in the church back in the 1980s, when he appeared to be questioning the historical validity of the resurrection of Jesus. In fact he was not at all, but he was deeply misunderstood. His expression that got leapt on was “conjuring trick with bones” as if he were asserting that the resurrection was a mere magic trick. He said quite the opposite, namely that the resurrection was “NOT a conjuring trick with bones.” But what lesser minds took from his teaching was, I believe, the logical conclusion, in some people’s minds, of much that had gone before in liberal theology. The style of Biblical investigation known as “historical criticism” had been moving in that direction for decades, some might even say centuries.
The bottom line of historical criticism is that its practitioners claim that the Bible is to be treated like any other historical text. Thus, the historical statements that are made in it are to be subjected to the same scrutiny as statements made about Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great or any other figure from the ancient world. As I noted in previous posts, I am sympathetic to this agenda up to a point. One of my rules of interpretation says just that. Just as much as any other good historian, I want evidence that king David existed and that he did the things the Bible claims of him. I want evidence that the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and rebuilt. I want to mesh such fairly ordinary (that is, non miraculous) contentions with hard evidence. So I turn to archeology and parallel texts and all the other paraphernalia at my disposal to test the credibility of these Biblical statements. For example, according to the current state of play in archeology it seems highly doubtful that the stories concerning king David and king Solomon are based in historical fact. This does not especially bother me. Nothing central to my faith hinges on these tales.
But for me, the truth of some of the historical statements in the Bible is more important than that of others. I am reasonably certain, for example, that the emperor Augustus did not order a census around the time of the birth of Jesus that required the entire population of Palestine to get up and move to the region of their tribal affiliation so they could be counted. All kinds of historical evidence argues strongly against this notion. For a start it would have required a massive upheaval of people that would have destroyed the economic base of the region. Empires (and emperors) exist because they take money from healthy economies. Nothing is to be gained by weakening that base for the sake of an exercise in counting. I am also, therefore, given to doubt that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. This does not really bother me too much, and I will explain why in more detail in later posts. Where he was born matters only if you get hung up on a certain kind of prophecy (or a certain species of Biblical interpretation). Where and how he died, however, and what happened afterwards, is an entirely different matter. For me, the whole of my faith and the nature of my Christian belief hinges on this. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, the core tenet of my faith vanishes. I have a crucial vested interest in this historical statement therefore. In consequence I want to know what evidence there is for the resurrection.
The best evidence possible would be multiple first person eye witness accounts. Well, dream on. They do not exist. Most lay Christians probably believe that the gospels are close to eye witness narratives, but historical and textual criticism suggest otherwise. To begin with, two of the gospels, Luke and Mark, do not even make the claim to have been written by eye witnesses. In fact we do not know who the authors were with any certainty. The smart money is on Mark having been written by a companion of Paul known as John Mark. But this is little more than an educated speculation that has become widely accepted by the academic community. All scholars acknowledge that Mark was a common name in the first century, and also that the oldest texts of the gospel available for us to see are anonymous. So Mark’s gospel could have been written by just about anybody, as could Luke’s gospel.
The smart money is also on the belief that none of the gospels was written by an eyewitness, although the historical material in them contains large segments from oral tradition that does likely go back to the first disciples. I am not going to go into the arguments for and against these points of view. They have been hashed over countless times. Rather, for the moment, I am going to take the dimmest view of the gospels as history when it comes to the resurrection, and work from there. I am going to accept the majority opinion among scholars that Mark is the oldest of the gospels and that it was written thirty years or so after the death of Jesus. I am also going to accept without reservation that the author was not an eyewitness to the events he records, but that he knew people who were. From this perspective the exact dating of the book is not awfully important. It is sufficient to know that it was written within a generation of the key events, using documents as source materials that may have come from eyewitnesses. It also seems likely that the bare bones of the passion narrative (supper – trial – execution) was in existence in one form or another before the gospels were written.
What I think we can take from Mark’s gospel without too much of a problem is that Jesus made a trip to Jerusalem at Passover time and in the process fell afoul of the authorities. In consequence he was arrested, tried, sentenced to death, and executed by crucifixion. That much is probably fine with most historians since it does not stretch their credulity. It’s what follows that gets tricky.
The ending of Mark’s gospel has been the subject of much controversy. The oldest and most reliable manuscripts end as follows (Mark 16:1-8)
1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.
2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb
3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.
5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.
7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ ”
8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
The stories of appearances of Jesus to the disciples that follow this passage in some MS versions of this gospel appear to be later additions and are excluded from the best modern texts. What we seem to have preserved here in this passage (that could have been the original ending of the gospel) is an old tradition of an empty tomb that stops a little shy of being a complete and unequivocal assertion of resurrection. As an historian I would not want to accept this passage as clear evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead.
With very little effort we can conjure up all kinds of scenarios that would explain what is described in this segment without going so far as accepting that it necessitates the resurrection of Jesus. The young man dressed in white could have been an accomplice of the followers of Jesus, in cahoots with them to bribe the guards, steal the body, and spread a story about Jesus being risen. I grant that there are weaknesses in such an interpretation, but it can cover the stated facts without a great stretch of the imagination. One counter argument runs that Roman soldiers guarding the tomb of a convicted criminal would have been answerable with their own lives if they had allowed the disciples or their collaborators to steal the body. But we cannot be so naïve as to imagine that the threat of death is, or was, some absolute penalty that assures the law will not be broken, especially given that Jesus had some well-heeled friends who could easily have afforded to give over sufficient amounts of cash to sway army grunts. I’m quite willing to argue that given enough money – then and now – anything is possible.
So the best we have from the oldest gospel is a story of an empty tomb. Later narratives embellish this tale with stories of sightings of the risen Jesus, but I do not trust them as history even though many of them are personally very compelling to me. I find the story of “Doubting” Thomas, for example, deeply engaging. But the words of the text do not come from Thomas himself, nor from any other eyewitness. So I cannot accept them at face value no matter how much I might want to. I must find other sources that are more reliable.
Some interpreters have tried to come up with an indirect argument in favor of the physical reality of the resurrection. One of my favorites is to consider the behavior of key people before and after the crucifixion. The apostle Peter is a good example. According to the gospel accounts Peter was quite the ‘fraidy cat before Jesus’ death. The following, from Mark’s account, is one of the most poignant moments in the gospel for me. It is so agonizing because I can imagine myself in his shoes. Jesus is on trial for his life and Peter is both attracted to the scene and deeply afraid of it. He wants to know what is going on, but he has no intention of sharing in Jesus’ fate. So he sits outside the trial venue and waits for news.
66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by.
67 When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him. “You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.
68 But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway.
69 When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.”
70 Again he denied it. After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”
71 He began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”
72 Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
This same man after the death of Jesus apparently became a pillar of the new faith, ultimately going to his own death by crucifixion in Rome, it is supposed. Surely something extraordinary must have happened to convert him from titmouse to titan. Would not the sight of the risen Jesus be the kind of miraculous intervention necessary to explain the metamorphosis? Well, yes and no. The story of Peter might supply a few shreds of corroboration, but the tale itself is insufficient evidence of the truth of the resurrection for the skeptical historian.
First and foremost we have exactly the same problem with the Biblical accounts of Peter’s activities that we do with those of Jesus. They are not the records of eyewitnesses, and many of them were not written down for a generation or more after Peter’s death. Some of the stories do not appear until nearly a century later. We do not know for sure, for example, that Peter did indeed die by crucifixion, nor where and when he died. Everything we know about Peter is pretty much hearsay, although some bits are better than others. Take the whole denial thing, for example. This is quite likely to be the germ of a true story for the simple reason that it does not cast Peter in a good light at all. But that is not saying much.
One of the curiosities of Biblical historical narratives is that they quite frequently cast the main characters in a very bad light. King David is a classic example. He is touted by priests and prophets as a model king in many respects: revered enough to be established as the dynastic ancestor from whose line the Messiah would come. Yet his sexual and personal mores were atrocious. For example, he seduced a married women, had sex with her during her menstrual period (it was expressly forbidden by Judaic law for him to touch her let alone have sex), and had her husband killed in battle when it was determined she was pregnant. The fact that such a narrative persists suggests that it contains a core of truth (about someone); otherwise a pious scribe would likely have edited it out along the way so as to create a cleaner image for David. The same may be said of the image of Peter in Mark.
Mark portrays Peter as something of a dolt and a coward before Jesus’ death. Yet this is the same man who became revered by the early church as one of its founders. Both Paul’s letters and the Acts of the Apostles confirm that Peter had a major role in leading the new church after the death of Jesus. Exactly what that role was can be disputed, but Peter’s transformation seems legitimate enough on the surface of things. There are a couple of important caveats though. First, it might be the case that Mark is casting the pre-resurrection Peter in a particularly bad light for some reason. Mark could, for example, be dissociating himself from Peter’s friends and followers because he disagrees with him (and them) politically and theologically. Second, just because Peter went through a life-changing experience does not mean that this experience had to have been the resurrection. Maybe he was delusional, or maybe he had some other powerful experience that set him on a new path. Or maybe seeing an empty tomb was all his frail, suggestible mind needed for him to conjure up the idea of a physical resurrection which then spurred him on to a new life. Maybe he was psychotic. One can create no end of scenarios that do not involve the actual resurrection of Jesus. But at the very least I think it is reasonable to assert that Peter went through a life-altering experience after the death of Jesus.
We also have to deal with the claim that Paul makes that he saw the resurrected Jesus. This, too, is testimony that we cannot accept at face value if we are truly skeptical historians. The main account of the event comes from the Acts of the Apostles, and not directly from Paul’s own mouth (acts 9:1-7):
1 But Saul [i.e. Paul], still breathing threats and death against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest
2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
3 Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him.
4 And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting;
6 but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.
8 Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
The Acts of the Apostles was written by the author of Luke’s gospel and is the only direct history of the early church in the New Testament. It is divided into two unequal parts: the first dealing with the church in Jerusalem under the leadership of the apostles, and the second recounting the travels and tribulations of Paul. There is reason to suppose that some of the sections on Paul contain material from eye witnesses. There are, for example, passages that shift into first person plural – the so-called “we passages” (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16) – suggesting that they were taken directly from someone’s journal or the like. But this can be disputed, and need not hold us long. More to the point, whether we accept or reject this version of Paul’s conversion, there is not much in it to suggest that it is any kind of evidence for the resurrection. We see Saul/Paul doing something weird while his companions look on in amazement. Anthropologists could easily compare this behavior with scores of acts they have witnessed of people in trance during rituals.
But Paul does say of his own accord that he has witnessed the risen Jesus. In a list of people who have seen the resurrected Christ he concludes with the following (1 Corinthians 15:8):
Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me
All well and good, but there is nothing to prevent us interpreting this whole episode either as Paul’s personal delusion or, worse, something he made up for personal gain. The latter may be a bit unlikely, but it is possible. All of the apostles could have been out to make a name for themselves by concocting a fabulous story about death and resurrection. But this would have been a mighty dangerous game given the nature of the times. For myself, I have no doubt that Paul saw something. But whether it was the resurrected Jesus or something less miraculous cannot be ascertained from the historical evidence we have. Still, to be fair, we must say that Paul claims to be an eyewitness to the resurrected Jesus and we have this directly from his mouth/pen, and these passages in the epistles are undisputedly genuinely from Paul.
What gets my attention, though, is not so much what Paul saw as what he heard from Peter and others who had been with Jesus in Jerusalem. While we do not have Peter’s direct testimony we do have the next best thing, namely, Paul’s account of Peter’s experiences. Now, in a court of law listening to Paul’s version of what Peter said he saw would be dismissed as hearsay. But this is not a court of law and we cannot cross examine Paul any more than we can Peter. So the rules of evidence cannot be quite so stringent. What we know is that Paul heard directly from Peter that Peter had seen the risen Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15: 3-7 we have the following:
3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,
4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,
5 and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve.
6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.
7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
This is pretty serious stuff. Admittedly there are some problems to iron out. One is that critics have argued that Paul’s language here seems rather formulaic. I don’t necessarily disagree. But I am not sure to what extent this fact alters the truth of the assertion he is making (except maybe in some of the smaller details).
We know for a certainty that Paul met Peter at least once, and probably on several occasions. It seems to me, therefore, absolutely impossible that Paul’s claims here about what Peter told him he saw are false. Being hearsay I cannot be sure what it was exactly that Peter saw, but he claims to have seen the risen Jesus. Yet again we could argue that Peter was as delusional as Paul and that both, in moments of deep anxiety and personal crisis, had experienced some species of hallucination. Later Peter described this experience to Paul as if it were real, and Paul accepted it wholesale because it meshed with his own fantasy. But Paul also heard the same story from many others who had been with Jesus: James, for example.
Now before going into more detail I have to say that I agree with the critics who see in Paul’s language the signs of formulaic writing. 1 Corinthians verses 5 and 7 are a bit puzzling otherwise. They look like mirrors of one another with the initial figure changed. They almost smack of mantras of two separate factions – those who followed Peter and those who followed James. The “Peter-ites” professed that Jesus appeared to Peter first (because for them he was the most important of the disciples), then to the other apostles, and the “James-ites” put their guy first. Otherwise if we read Paul as straight journalistic reportage what he is reporting is slightly odd. Taken at face value Paul is saying that Jesus appeared to Peter first, then to the apostles, then to over five hundred disciples, then to James, then to the apostles again. Anything’s possible, I suppose. But even if we are just dealing with verbal formulae here, there is a point that should not be missed. Paul is essentially saying: “If you don’t believe me, ask these people; they were there as eye witnesses.” What he does not add, but I will, is that he had spoken directly with these people and received their testimony.
Did Paul speak to all five hundred (plus) witnesses? I doubt it very much. Some were dead, of course. But even if they had all been alive when he visited Jerusalem it would have been an awfully big chore to talk to them all. Rather, he is establishing for his readers the general idea that there are many, many people in Jerusalem who can confirm his story. If the resurrection is a delusion it is one that encompasses a large number of people, and not just a few close friends of Jesus who might have been especially susceptible to visions based on wishful thinking at a time of profound disappointment.
Paul’s attestation is not good enough for a truly hard-boiled scientific historian, but it is good enough for me. It’s good enough for me because my faith inclines me that way in the first place. It acts as a push in the right direction for the faith I already have. It is not good enough for critical historians because a truly astounding claim of this sort requires truly astounding proof for them to be satisfied. But the fact of the matter is that probably nothing could satisfy some historians. If a reported phenomenon defies the laws of natural science as we know them, there are going to be some people who simply will not accept the validity of the claim no matter how many direct eye witnesses can be brought forth to testify. This was surely the case in the first century too.
The firmly skeptical position is that the resurrection is an absurdity. Nothing can be brought back to life. So the unbeliever simply says that the resurrection is a physical impossibility and therefore did not happen no matter what the evidence in favor. Well this is a very weak argument in itself. I used to have a sign on my study wall made for me by a former student quoting Louis Brandeis: “Most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done.” How about flying in a heavier than air machine? How about cloning animals? One of the great enduring problems of the human mind is its ability to close off to possibilities. I wonder how much we cannot or do not do because we are already convinced that such things are impossible? We must certainly avoid the prideful confusion of “I cannot do it, therefore, it is impossible,” or the more general “modern science says it is impossible, therefore, it is impossible.” Modern science says it is impossible to travel faster than light. While I understand and generally accept the principles of relativity that lead to this conclusion, I remain open to the possibility that a new theory will come along one day to oust the old and give us hope of faster than light travel. Skepticism comes in all flavors, and one has a duty to be just as skeptical of the claims of contemporary science as of the claims of those who would deny its validity.
In the end, however, we are all forced back on our faith, Christians and atheists alike. I know that no amount of solid historical arguing will convince some people that Jesus died and was resurrected. They will undoubtedly have counter arguments to everything I have said here. In fact if they are too lazy to do it themselves I can provide the arguments for them. So let us just get down to faith. It seems to me that the modern theologians who deny everything miraculous have no faith. They believe in nothing out of the ordinary. Frankly I cannot understand why they bother to be clergy at all. You can be an atheist and hold all the same opinions. The point about being a Christian is that you have faith in something extraordinary – something that is so miraculous that it takes pure faith to accept it. The resurrection ends up being an axiom of faith, like Euclid’s parallel postulate, on which you build your edifice.
To be continued . . .