A while ago I wrote a series of posts about Jesus' miracles. Without wanting to go over old ground, the general drift was that the miracles are teaching incidents. They are not intended as displays of divine power, but as illustrations of the nature of the Kingdom of God coming among us. Did they happen? Not sure, I don't dismiss them but I hold their factuality relatively lightly.
William Lane Craig, Paul Barnett and Geza Vermes, has helped to crystallise my thinking about the question in a way I think is worth telling you about. I'll do it in two parts, otherwise it would be too long - this one looks at the evidence for the resurrection as an historical phenomenon, the next will look at what it meant for the early Christians.
The Resurrection of Jesus is a central event in the Christian faith. In my youth, encouraged by some of my early teachers, I often attempted to use the "proofs" of the resurrection as an evangelistic strategy - after all, if Jesus could be shown to have risen from the dead then he must be the Son of God and everyone should then believe. I was kind of baffled when people remained unconvinced. It all seemed so convincing to me when Lewis said it, or when Frank Morrison or Josh McDowell laid out the proofs one by one.
Conservative Christians are still at it, as I found reading Craig, but I no longer find it convincing. I have often said that the main point of apologetics is to keep believers in the faith, not to convert skeptics. Yet when the arguments fell apart for me my faith did not. It just became less literal. It became more faith, less pseudo-history.
What are we to do then, with the arguments about the resurrection? The traditional view of this event is that it is a literal, bodily resurrection. Is belief in such an event sustainable? If not, should we therefore abandon Christianity? Or are there other ways to look at it?
I want to approach this issue in three ways. First, I want to look at the "strong" arguments for the resurrection as an historical event. Second, I want to look at the main problems or confusing aspects of this story. The finally, in the next post, I want to make some brief tentative comments about where this might leave us.
One of the things that's surprised me is the wide currency of the argument from transformation. This is the line of reasoning that says that something transformed the Apostles from a group of frightened fugitives to bold preachers who were prepared to die for their message. According to the Gospels, when Jesus was arrested all his disciples fled except Peter, and he denied knowing Jesus. Later they hid in the upper room of the house where they were staying with their doors locked. Yet if the Book of Acts is at all accurate, within a couple of months they were proclaiming Jesus as Christ on the streets of Jerusalem and refusing to back down in the face of threats from the Jerusalem authorities who had Jesus killed. What explains this transformation?
This argument is used by conservatives like Lewis, Craig and McDowell, but is also accepted by writers of a much more skeptical bent, including John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan and Geza Vermes. What makes this a strong argument for there being an actual event behind the resurrection stories is that it's not something you would make up. A story concocted at a later date to justify people's actions would not show the movement's leaders in such a bad light. It would not show Jesus appearing to the women of the group while the men stayed away, and then the men refusing to believe the story until they were convinced with their own eyes. If you were making this stuff up, you would show yourself, or your leaders, in a much more favourable light.
The other thing which is often seen as being in favour of this as an historical event is that it is unprecedented in Jewish thought. Some of my early teachers liked to suggest that the resurrection was somehow proof of Jesus' messianic status, but first century Jews had no such notion. For them the resurrection was an end time event at which all the dead would be raised to life and judged, with those found righteous admitted to paradise. If you wanted to prove you were the Messiah, rising from the dead wouldn't help. Getting rid of the Romans would. The idea of the resurrection vindicating Jesus' messianic claims originates in Christianity.
One explanation that is sometimes put forward is that this is a borrowing from pagan mythology. The Egyptian god Osiris, for instance, died and then rose again. The Greek fertility goddess Persephone was abducted and taken to the underworld (the place of the dead) in winter and returned in spring. Sir James Frazer's classic The Golden Bough popularised the notion that the story of Jesus' death and resurrection is another outgrowth of this widespread fertility myth, and Paul even uses the illustration of a seed when talking about the subject.
The problem with this option, and the reason you mostly find it in pseudo-histories rather than works of serious scholarship, is that there is no evidence the apostles were influenced by these myths. First century Christianity was very much a Jewish religion, spreading from believing Jews to Gentile God-fearers and working out from there. The faith of the New Testament is expressed in wholly Jewish terms, and compromise with pagan religion is strongly forbidden.
Something transformed the Apostles and gave them the courage to fearlessly proclaim the crucified Jesus as a risen Messiah. But what happened, and how are we to understand it?
When we move from this general, circumstantial evidence to the specific resurrection stories, we move into much murkier territory.
It is clear that belief in Jesus' resurrection arose quite early in the life of the church. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul begins his discussion of the resurrection like this:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:
that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas,
and then to the Twelve.
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time,
most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
Then he appeared to James,
then to all the apostles,
and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Paul Barnett, among other scholars, suggests that this recital is part of a creed or liturgical formulation which Paul may have been taught on his induction into the faith or sometime shortly after. Even if he learned it later it clearly pre-dates the letter in which it appears since Paul is restating what he has already taught them. 1 Corinthians is fairly reliably dated to around 55 CE. This provides a kind of way marker in our knowledge of early Christianity. By this date at the very latest, Christians were firm in their belief in the resurrection.
This is not the same, however, as saying that we have eyewitness accounts. Aside from Paul's final line (to which I shall return) all of these events are reported at a distance. This is the same for the gospel accounts. Mark records no appearances. Luke never had any personal contact with Jesus and relied on later research and tradition. Matthew, if the traditional authorship is correct, was one of Jesus' disciples but his account is not a personal one - it is a recording of oral traditions, many of which he shares word for word with Mark and Luke. Only John presents us with an account which may possibly be personal, although John's gospel appears to have been filtered through a number of editors before it reached the form we have.
There are also discrepancies in the gospel accounts. Did the disciples stay in Jerusalem or return to Galilee? To how many women did Jesus appear in the garden? How long did he stay around for after the resurrection? These discrepancies lend a baffling air to the story. However, they are not the most pressing issue.
I believe the resurrection stories present us with three key questions about the resurrection: what sort of appearances are being described? where was Jesus after the resurrection? and where is he now?
The traditional Christian view is that Jesus experienced a bodily resurrection - that his dead flesh
returned to life. Some of the stories seem to support this. For instance, in John 21 seven of the disciples are out fishing and they see Jesus on the shore - they return to shore and sit with him, eating some fish and discussing various things. It seems highly natural, just like any unexpected meeting with a friend. Yet even here the story is presented in a highly stylised way which suggests more than just a simple memoir. There are seven disciples (John's favourite symbolic number), the author records the precise number of fish they caught (153 - I'm not sure what that means) and Jesus asks Peter the same question three times.
Other stories in John are even less natural. When Mary meets Jesus in the garden she doesn't recognise him until he makes himself known - then he tells her not to touch him "because I have not yet ascended to the Father". Later, he twice enters the disciples' meeting room through locked doors.
Perhaps there's just some ambiguity in John's account, but Luke's is even stranger. Two disciples are on a journey when Jesus appears to them. He walks with them for some distance, discussing the relationship between Jesus' life and ancient prophecy, and joins them at the wayside inn for a meal, all without them recognising him. Then before they eat he blesses the food and "their eyes are opened", at which point Jesus promptly disappears. The end of the story is quite curious, as on their return to Jerusalem the pair tell the other disciples what they have seen, "and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread".
Paul's list of appearances only deepens the mystery. He doesn't describe any of these appearances, merely lists them, but at the end he adds an appearance to himself. He provides no more detail of his own experience than of anyone else's but Luke, his later travelling companion and apologist, narrates the event in Acts 9.
...suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting."...The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no-one.
Paul/Saul is struck blind by this vision and does not recover his sight for three days.
This description is repeated, with minor variations, three more times in the book of Acts, in speeches attributed to Paul. In one his companions see the light but do not hear the voice. Another contains an expanded account of what Jesus said to Paul.
What is being described each time is not a meeting with a human being returned to life, it is a full-on mystical experience, an encounter with a divine messenger. Flashing lights, a disembodied voice and a seminal. life changing message. Paul places this experience alongside the others on his list as if they are all the same sort of thing.
He reinforces this point further on in the discussion in 1 Corinthians 15.
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. ...
So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
Paul sees a resurrected person as qualitatively different to the person before they die, and as far superior, just as Acts shows him encountering a powerful being.
So what is the resurrection? Is it the man Jesus returning to bodily life and walking among his disciples again? Or is it a series of striking mystical experiences which profoundly change the lives of those who experience them?
The second question, which tends to reinforce this point, is this: where was Jesus during the resurrection accounts? It is clear that prior to his execution he lived with the disciples - they shared accommodation, they ate together, they travelled together. Yet his post-resurrection appearances are just that - he comes and goes mysteriously, and in between they are on their own, puzzling among themselves about what all this means. Where is Jesus in between these appearances, and what is he doing?
Leaving aside the wild and woolly speculations of the pseudo-historians, there are not many clues to this in the gospels themselves. John possibly hints that he is coming and going from heaven, the abode of God - when he meets Mary in the garden he tells her not to touch him because he has "not yet ascended to (his) Father", but later he invites Thomas to touch his scars. Does John intend us to understand that in between these two appearances he has, in fact, ascended and then returned?
Which brings us to the third question: where is Jesus now? Or to put it another way, where did he go after his final appearance? Matthew, Mark and John are silent on this question. Luke, however, does attempt an explanation. In Luke 24:51 he tells us "he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven". He repeats the story at the beginning of Acts with a more graphic description: "as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of sight". This idea of ascension is reinforced in the next chapter in Peter's Pentecost sermon, where he describes Jesus as "exalted at the right hand of God".
I have dealt with this description previously in my second post on Jesus' miracles, but my conclusion is worth repeating. The primary view of the universe in the first century, and up to the time of Copernicus and Galileo in the Renaissance, was the Ptolemaic view. According to Ptolemy the universe was a series of spheres, with the earth at the centre and various layers above containing the sun, moon, stars and so on. The final, outermost sphere was the abode of God. Hence if Jesus returned to be with God after his resurrection, he must have travelled upwards through the various levels, from which he would one day return.
This is a perfectly rational description on the basis of first century science, but our current knowledge of the universe renders it nonsense. If Jesus travelled up into the sky he either suffocated or, assuming his heavenly body was capable of surviving in outer space, he is still going, travelling among the stars and doing who knows what?
The only way to make any sense of this story is to understand that it is symbolic. It is not a literal, factual account of what happened but a way of illustrating Jesus' exalted status and his new relationship with his followers. He is no longer with them in person, but his message is vindicated and he remains with them "in spirit".
The apostles genuinely believed that after Jesus was crucified he was raised from the dead, and that he appeared to them. However, their descriptions of these appearances are enigmatic and brief, and suggest that this was not a simple return to life but a return to a qualitatively different type of existence - a "heavenly body", a figure who came and went mysteriously before finally disappearing from the scene in order to return to heaven to be with his Father. He is still overseeing them, guiding them through his Spirit and waiting the time of his final descent.
What use did they make of this story? How did it influence how they acted and what they taught their followers? This is the subject of my next post.