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Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Easter Stories

What are we to make of the Easter stories? They certainly differ from one another. As David Buttrick notes,
Do we learn anything... from the the resurrection narratives that conclude the Gospels? No, not really. In some of the stories we do not even get an appearance. All we get is a bedsheet angel announcing, "He has risen, he is not here." In other stories we find all sorts of bizarre happenings: risen Christ on a mountain reciting a Trinitarian baptismal formula, or risen Christ delivering a formal sermon in the middle of the Emmaus road or risen Christ suddenly materializing in order to go "whoosh" and breathe the Holy Spirit on disciples (Preaching Jesus Christ, p. 59).
Which is why it's no surprise that most historians and some New Testament scholars express skepticism about their reliability.

That said, scholars probably shouldn't dismiss the Resurrection too quickly. There is some evidence in support of it. For example, it's fairly certain that the early Christians believed something occurred. How do we know? Well, taking a clue from the early twentieth-century sociologist William Thomas, who once observed, "if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences" (by which he meant that if people believe something to be true, they'll act as if it is true), one can argue that the reverse also holds: if people act as if something is true, then they probably believe it to be true. Thus, if the Gospel accounts are even remotely reliable, then because the early Christians behaved as if the Resurrection happened, they probably believed that something happened. Such a conclusion certainly accords with what we find in the New Testament witness. As New Testament scholar Dale Allison puts it:
According to Paul, who knew Peter, a follower of Jesus, and James, his brother (Gal. 1:18-2:14), both sibling and disciple encountered the risen Jesus, who arose "on the third day" (1 Cor. 15:3-7). That settles the issue: some people who knew Jesus personally believed, soon after the crucifixion, likely within a few days, that God had raised him from the dead. To this there is no counter testimony: the Synoptics, John, and Acts concur with Paul on this particular (Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History, p. 55).
Moreover, there is"no feature of the Jesus story that satisfies so many of the criteria of historicity" (Catherine Murphy, "The Historical Jesus for Dummies," p. 240):
  • 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.
That is why numerous mainline scholars have concluded that something must have happened (see e.g., Catherine Murphy, "The Historical Jesus for Dummies," p. 240, James Alison, "Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination," pp. 28-30, and David Buttrick, "Preaching Jesus Christ," pp. 57-58). Of course, believing that something happened follows from their a priori assumptions about the nature of the world (i.e., what can and cannot happen). As the Anglican priest and theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne, who is a member of the Royal Society of London (the oldest and most prestigious scientific society in the world) puts it:
An inquiry into the evidence can carry us only so far. It can demonstrate (as I believe it does) that the Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus is not without substantial motivation, so that it is far from being an ungrounded speculation. However, at best such an inquiry can point only to a balance of probability... Ultimately one's attitude to the resurrection will depend on the degree to which it does or does not cohere with one's general understanding of the way the world is. If the Christian understanding is true, that in Jesus the divine and human so mingled that a new regime was present in the world, then the unique occurrence of the resurrection is conceivable... If a humanist understanding is true, that Jesus was a remarkable and inspiring man but no more, then it is to be expected that death had the degree of finality for him that it will have for us" ("The Way the World Is: The Christian Perspective of a Scientist," p. 79).
This is also probably why most Christians, including mainline Protestants, believe in Jesus's bodily resurrection:
  • In the 2008-2009 wave of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, 94 percent of evangelicals, 91 percent of Catholics, and 78 percent of mainline Protestants said Jesus was raised bodily from the dead after his crucifixion.
  • 75% of the more than 25,000 respondents to congregational surveys offered by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research from 2004 to 2010, most of whom were mainline Protestants, said that they believed that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was an actual event.
  • According to the Portraits of American Life study more than 2/3 of Christian respondents, including 84% of black and evangelical respondents and 67% of mainline Protestants and Catholics, strongly agreed with the statement, “Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead” (15.4% of mainline Protestants and 13.4% of Catholics "somewhat" agreed with the statement).
Of course, just because a majority of Christians believe that something is true, doesn't mean that it is. Nevertheless, I daresay that most Christians, including most mainline Protestants, need more to hang their faith on than simply a belief that when the first Christians broke bread together they experienced a strange warming in the hearts.

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