Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Herod's support for the empty tomb?

In his recent book Jesus of Nazareth (see post below) Maurice Casey argues that the disciples saw appearances of Jesus after his death (something had to explain the resurrection belief of the first Christians) but there was no bodily resurrection (nor for that matter an empty tomb to visit - Jesus' body was placed in a common grave for criminals). In arguing that there were such appearances, Casey is not arguing for a set of miraculous visitations of a non-physical Jesus, just that, in common with many grieving humans, the disciples had experiences of their loved one appearing to be present with them.

Intriguingly (to me, at any rate) Casey's overall presentation of the historical Jesus includes argument for (1) Mark's Gospel being written as early as 40 A.D., (2) its abrupt ending being explained by accounting for this gospel as a whole being an uncompleted draft (its incompletion could have been due to its author dying an early death), (3) all four gospels narrate 'empty tomb' versions of the resurrection of Jesus, in contrast to Paul's 1 Corinthian's 15 version of the resurrection without reference to the empty tomb, as a function of 'social memory' or need of respective gospel communities to know that Jesus was raised bodily.

I do not quite understand why such a 'social memory' need would arise so early in the case of Mark and his gospel community, especially when Paul's recounting of the resurrection tradition is ten year's later than Mark's. Wouldn't it make more sense for Casey's view of the resurrection narratives to date Mark in the 60s or later A.D.?

The abrupt ending to Mark's Gospel (i.e 16:1-8 is the original end of the gospel, not the verses 16:9-20 reprinted in most Bibles) is a puzzle. That Mark's Gospel might be a draft goes some way to solving this puzzle. Nevertheless, so far in my reading of the book, I have not seen Casey account for the exceptional cleverness of the structure of Mark's Gospel as we have it. (To give two examples relating to a major theme: note the ways in which the future death of Jesus is carefully signalled as early as 2:19 and 3:6 while the death and burial of John the Baptist is narrated in a way which anticipates Jesus' own death and burial, compare 6:29 with 15:46). If a draft, the Gospel of Mark as we have received it is nevertheless very well written.

Be all that as it may, the story of the death of John the Baptist includes this important detail: when Herod (i.e. Antipas) hears of Jesus' burgeoning reputation as a teaching, healing, exorcizing prophet, Mark writes that some were saying "John the Baptist has been raised from the dead" (6:14) and that Herod himself took this view, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised" (6:16). Whether or not these details are Mark's narrative inventiveness at work or actual views of unnamed persons and of Herod himself, Mark is using the language of resurrection from the dead about a person physically present to observers. In this case the 'person' is complex: the body of John the Baptist is presumed to have been raised and to be moving around in ministry under an alias. This presumption is part of an introduction to the story of how John died so we do not get to learn whether any one bothered to check out the speculation by visiting John's tomb. In any case, as readers we know it is not true: John is John (dead and buried) and Jesus is Jesus (alive but soon to die), two separate individuals.

It is possible, in Casey's terms, that Mark is being exceptionally clever: forecasting the empty tomb and bodily resurrection of Jesus with this subtle introduction to John's death is part of a complicated development for Mark's community of the needed 'social memory' of Jesus' being raised bodily. But was this need so urgent in 40 A.D.? And, was a 7-10 year period sufficient to develop the extraordinary narrative which Mark undertakes? (By contrast, we might compare the development of John's gospel narrative over seven decades!)

But it is also possible that Mark is simply representing a common understanding, at least among the early Christians, if not among Christians and resurrection-believing Jews, that being 'raised from the dead' was a bodily phenomenon. Further, this understanding of being 'raised' was such that a supportive additional clause about the tomb being empty was not required. That is, Mark's words in Mark 6 about John the Baptist being raised from the dead represent an understanding among Christians such that when Paul wrote to the Corinthians about Christ '... he was buried ... he was raised ...' (15:4) it was presupposed that the tomb became empty.

Unfortunately Paul did not anticipate later debates about the contrast alleged between his words and the resurrection narratives in the gospels.


liturgy said...

Greetings Peter

You write, “in common with many grieving humans, the disciples had experiences of their loved one appearing to be present with them.” I would be interested in Maurice Casey or anyone presenting literature akin to the gospel stories where the grieving humans see someone they do not recognise and then realise, and sometimes with hesitation, that this is the deceased. This is a complete reversal of the normal where you spot someone, say, with the gait of your deceased friend and then remember that cannot be the case.

I have been particularly appreciative of your writing and comments this Easter Season.

Christ is risen.


Jon said...

I've long thought that Mark finished his gospel where he did because he didn't need to talk about the empty tomb or resurrected Jesus because his community already knows this, but his ending is crafted for dramatic effect. The gospels were intended to be heard and not read so I think that Mark's church likely encountered this as a kind of reflective pageant that provoked the hearer to fill in the ending and so make the risen Christ a part of themselves.

As to not recognizing Jesus; it's all about context. If I see the cashier from the grocery store somewhere unexpected, I may think she's familiar but I won't know/recognize her in the way I would if we were together at the grocery. Dead people don't come back to life in normal experience and so every human instinct would be denying what Christ's witnesses saw with their eyes. If my dead brother showed up at the door I can't imagine how much convincing I would need to believe such a thing. The miracle is in the witnesses coming to believe their own experiences.

I also appreciate your work on this blog and your willingness and desire for dialog.


Paul Powers said...

Paul's letters were directed to people who already knew the gospel story. It wasn't necessary for him to go into as much detail as did the 4 evangelists, who were writing to an audience for whom the story is unknown. In any case, 1 Corinthians 15 makes it clear that Paul believed in Jesus' actual bodily resurrection.

As for this "experiences of their loved one appearing to be present with them" business, that might be a plausible argument if Jesus had supposedly appeared before one or two people. But how likely is it that all of the remaining eleven apostles, plus Mary Magdalene and the other women and others, would have all experienced this mass delusion?

As our Greek brothers and sisters say: Christos Anesti! Alithos Anesti!

Brother David said...

Paul, the original synoptic gospels were not written for communities unfamiliar with the story, especially when it comes to Mark. These, yes, were edited by later generations of communities going on what was handed down to them, but the core is the liturgical recollection of what the original communities experienced.