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Friday, April 22, 2011

Resurrection? Really? Yes, Really

The early twentieth-century sociologist William Thomas once wrote that "if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences," by which he meant that if people believe that something is true, they will act as if it is true. One could also argue the reverse: If people are acting as if something is true, then there's a high probability that they believe it to be true.

The "Thomas Theorem" comes to mind as Easter approaches. If the Gospel accounts are even remotely reliable, I think it is safe to conclude that not only did the early Christians behave as if the Resurrection happened, they actually believed that it happened. Of course, what actually happened is a matter of debate among scholars, with some, like John Dominic Crossan, arguing for a metaphorical understanding of the Resurrection, and others, such as N.T. Wright, arguing on behalf of a bodily Resurrection (Note: Crossan and Wright are good friends and routinely debate one another on various topics about the historical Jesus -- see, e.g., "The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue").

Without a doubt the Resurrection does pose problems for historians. As New Testament scholar (and thoroughgoing skeptic) Bart Ehrman puts it ("Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium," pp. 227-228):
I must stress... the problem confronting the historian when it comes to discussing miracles. Even if a miracle did happen, there is no way we can demonstrate it, by the very nature of the case...  Historians try to determine what happened in the past. Since they can't prove the past, they can only establish what probably happened. But by their very nature, miracles are highly improbable occurrences. That is to say, the chances of a miracle happening are infinitesimally remote, as opposed to other weird things that happen in our world that are not in anode themselves so highly improbable that we'd call them 'impossible.' The, even if Jesus was raised from the dead--as many Christian historians personally believe he was, just as most other historians think he wasn't--there is no way we can demonstrate it using historical methods.
Other problems exist as well. For example, the Gospel stories about the empty tomb and the Resurrection appearances don't agree (e.g., they differ on how many "angels" were in the empty tomb and who actually went to the tomb), and the only recorded witnesses to the Resurrection are those who already believed in Jesus. It is for such reasons that the Roman Catholic biblical scholar, John Meier, refuses to even consider the Resurrection in his account of the historical Jesus ("A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus," p. 13):
A treatment of the resurrection is omitted not because it is denied but simply because the restrictive definition of the historical Jesus I will be using does not allow us to proceed into matters than can be affirmed only by faith.
In his search for the historical Jesus, Meier envisages an "unpapal conclave" where "a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic--all honest historians cognizant of 1st-century religious movements--were locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library, put on a spartan diet, and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended in his own time and place" ("A Marginal Jew," p. 1). In such a setting, Meier believes, the four imagined historians would not be able to hammer out a consensus on the Resurrection, which is why Meier leaves it alone (although my understanding is that he does believe in it).

Nevertheless, historians can't (or at least shouldn't) dismiss the resurrection too quickly. As Catherine Murphy notes ("The Historical Jesus for Dummies," p. 240) there is "no feature of the Jesus story that satisfies so many of the criteria of historicity" (see "The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part V: Criteria"). As she notes:
  • "It's traced to many eyewitnesses. Paul, for example, claims more than 515 eyewitnesses (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)."
  • "It's embarrassing (consider the divergent stories and women as witnesses, for example)."
  • "It's an early tradition on which all the other traditions in the gospels are predicated (no one would have bothered to write gospels if the resurrection hadn't occurred)."
  • "It's reported in multiple, independent sources (Paul, Mark, John and possibly Q 11:29-30, 32)."
  • "It's discontinuous with Jewish beliefs about resurrection because, as far as we know, no one had ever claimed that someone had actually risen, that this proved the person's unique status, and that this resurrection had something to offer everyone (namely, that if they believed in it, they too would rise). Early Christians had to pour tremendous energy into understanding it themselves."
  • "It's coherent not so much with the historical details of Jesus's life, but with the rise of early Christianity."
Which is why a number of mainline biblical scholars (i.e., those who don't read the Bible literally) have concluded that something must have happened. What happened exactly, most aren't willing to say, but they do believe that something did (see e.g., Catherine Murphy, "The Historical Jesus for Dummies," p. 240 or James Alison, "Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination," pp. 28-30). I think my old homiletics professor, David Buttrick puts it quite eloquently:
The resurrection was an event; in a word, something happened. What is more, as a happening the resurrection has historical dimensions. We will not suggest even for a moment that the resurrection narratives, no matter how far-fetched they may seem, are products of wishful thinking, the fevered imaginings of a first-century Christian community that lacked scientific enlightenment. Nor will we accept Karl Barth's less than helpful phrase, and label the resurrection a nonhistorical event--whatever that would be! No, as a man remarked gazing into the carved deeps of the Grand Canyon, "Something happened here." Obviously something did happen that prompted the church's confession, "Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!" (David Buttrick, "Preaching Jesus Christ," pp. 57-58).
So, does this mean that it is intellectually irresponsible not to believe in the Resurrection? Of course not. As Ehrman points out, most non-Christian historians don't believe in it. Nevertheless, there is enough evidence to argue that about 2,000 years ago something momentous did happen. In other words, we don't have to explain away the Resurrection (as some biblical scholars are wont to do) in order to maintain intellectual respectability. So, can we really believe in the Resurrection? Yes, really.

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