Wednesday, March 30, 2016

What is historical core of the resurrection?

Each Easter I notice myself thinking and re-thinking the biblical accounts of the resurrection of our Lord. Some previous thoughts have been posted here but I am not too concerned to re-visit them or re-direct you back to them.

What I have noticed in my thinking this year is that I am shifting from an underlying quest of the kind, "the different gospel/Acts/1 Corinthians accounts are surely harmonizable but I can't quite put all the jigsaw pieces together" to another quest, represented by two questions percolating in my mind:

"What history is basic to the accounts?" and, with particular reference to the gospels, "Why shouldn't the resurrection accounts be as different as other aspects of each of the gospels are different to the others?"

What history is basic to the accounts?

If we understand history in terms of "what happened that people experienced and then reported to each other with general agreement forming out of that reporting process that X happened rather than Y happened" then two things happened in connection with Christian belief that Jesus was raised from the dead. These two things, I suggest, are the historical core of the resurrection, the history which is basic to the accounts given in the gospels/Acts/1 Corinthians.

(1) The tomb in which Jesus was buried was discovered to be empty of his body (so all four gospel accounts; while not affirmed by accounts in Acts and in 1 Corinthians 15, the empty tomb is not denied by them).

(2) Various followers of Jesus had experiences of appearances of Jesus, subsequent to the discovery of the empty tomb (so all four gospels, Acts and 1 Corinthians 15, with the last account giving the fullest list of such appearances).

Only (1) was potentially affirmable as a matter of public record since (2) was restricted to the circle of Jesus' followers (note Acts 10:41 which explicitly affirms the appearances were "not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses").

We do not (as far as I am aware) have any public record of the tomb being confirmed as empty. Conversely we have no clear record of the tomb of Jesus with his body decaying in it continuing as a place of visitation and pilgrimage.

Differences in the gospel accounts?

Readers here may well have thought of the following matters many years ago but this year there are some aspects of accounting for the differences which feel new to me.

Mark: Mark's abrupt ending (assuming 16:8 is the last verse of the gospel by Mark, other verses beyond that being later additions) is a worry, giving us only the empty tomb, no actual appearance of Jesus, only the anticipation of one. But, my new thought for this year, Mark begins abruptly too. No nativity story like Matthew and Luke, no prologue from before time began like John. Jesus simply appears as an adult on a mission. I (we?) should have no expectation of Mark offering more of an ending than he does.

I assume (with most gospel scholars) that Matthew and Luke are influenced by Mark.

Matthew: An elaborate, colourful account of events at the tomb (earthquake, descending angel, whose appearance is like lightning/snow, guards are all mentioned uniquely here) to which is added a unique story designed to refute a circulating rumour that Jesus' body was stolen, with just two appearances of Jesus, the first as the women leave the tomb and the second when Jesus is in Galilee with the Eleven and he commissions them for world mission.

This "world vision" ending coheres with Matthew's beginning inasmuch as that beginning, including the initial genealogy (1:1-18) and the visitation of the Magi (2:1-12), sets out indications that Jesus was born to be Saviour of the whole world, of the Jews and the Gentiles.

Luke: An elaborate account is given of both Jesus' birth and Jesus' resurrection, each differing in significant ways from Matthew's accounts. Luke is interested in the God at work in Israel's history when he tells us about the conception/birth of John the Baptist and the conception/birth of Jesus as continuation of that work. At the end of his gospel, he continues this interest as he gives us two occasions in which the risen Jesus himself leads disciples in Bible studies which reveal that what has happened is the fulfilment of what had already been written in the scriptures of Israel.

With respect to stories of the empty tomb being discovered and of appearances of the risen Jesus being seen, Luke offers a degree of physicality not present in Matthew's account: Jesus invites his disciples to touch him, and he shares in food offered to him. Further, the Emmaus story, although primarily a story about understanding the scriptures as pointing to Jesus, gives a sense of Jesus' appearances not only involving brief encounters, but also longer occasions, for this occasion involving a long walk must have been of more than an hour's duration.

But Luke is not above twisting whatever he has gleaned from Mark and other (oral?) sources: there is no hint of Jesus' appearing in Galilee, all appearances of Jesus are confined to Jerusalem and its surrounds. The obvious reason is that Luke wants to start his sequel in Jerusalem and so Jesus departs from his disciples from Jerusalem. (As a matter of discovering historical facts about the resurrection, one of the clearest contradictions at the level of"fact" in the New Testament is the cessation of appearances: Mark, Matthew and John point to Galilee as that place; Luke is as clear as can be, Jerusalem was that place. Only a narratival understanding enables us to move past the apparent geographical contradiction to understand what the gospel writers are trying to communicate through the way they tell the story.)

John: Just as John at his beginning is very different to Matthew, Mark and Luke, so also at his ending. But at that beginning he does talk about the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist and so at the ending, like the other canonical gospels the tomb is empty. Other similarities are: Jesus appears to a woman (cf. Matthew's women) and to the disciples, both in Jerusalem (cf. Luke) and in Galilee (cf. Matthew and the anticipation in Mark). There is an emphasis on the physicality of Jesus (the famous story of Thomas, the breakfast BBQ; cf. Luke). Pretty much everything else is different, including a very different commission compared to Matthew and Luke (although Matthew and Luke have differences in wording, both emphasise a worldwide gospel commission), as well as some sense that future rivalries in the church are being sorted out in the dialogue at the end of the beach BBQ scene in John 21).

But what John is doing in John 20 and 21 is similar to Matthew and Luke in this sense: all work from the basic resurrection facts (empty tomb, appearances of Jesus) to offer a conclusion to the earthly story of Jesus which is (a) coherent with the general theological, christological or missiological interests of their respective gospels; and (b) alert to apologetic or ecclesiastical issues which might be settled with a deft story to two (countering rumours that the body was stolen, responding to concerns that Jesus' resurrection body was merely an apparition, clarifying the significance of both the Petrine and Johannine churches).

That is

In my reflections this year I find myself acknowledging more readily the reality of the differences in the various accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, lessening a concern to harmonise those differences, emphasising the differences at the beginnings of each gospel as an important explanation for why the endings are different while appreciating again the basic facts of the resurrection. The tomb was empty. Christ appeared to many disciples.

Alternatively you might like to listen to Helen Jacobi, Vicar of St Matthew's in the City, Auckland, in a wide-ranging interview, but including some reflections on the resurrection. Spoiler: a bob each way on the resurrection!


BrianR said...

"No nativity story like Matthew and Luke, no prologue from before time began like John."
Read Mark 1.2 (a composite of Malachi 3.1 and Isaiah 40.3) again! Who is addressed in 'YOUR face, ... YOUR way'? Malachi 3.1 says 'before ME' and Isaiah 40.3 says 'the way of the LORD'. Surely this is the Father speaking to the pre-incarnate Son.
Peter Williams of Tyndale House has done a fine lecture (available on youtube) on 'Things that ought to be known about the Resurrection' in which he develops, among other things, Richard Bauckham's onomastic approach to eyewitness evidence (what a brilliant book 'Jesus and his Eyewitnesses' is).

Bryden Black said...

I have posted this on FB:

Really great quote back from Josh Taylor too!

Father Ron Smith said...

" you might like to listen to Helen Jacobi, Vicar of St Matthew's in the City, Auckland, in a wide-ranging interview, but including some reflections on the resurrection. Spoiler: a bob each way on the resurrection!" - Peter Carrell -

Dear Peter, having listened to this interview, I quickly realised that the intention of the interviewer was to try to 'trap' Helen Jacobi into saying something that he thought would prove sedititious. Very similar really, the the Scribes and Pharisees trying to trick Jesus into the same sort of 'heretical' statement. Naturally, perhaps, Helen's statements were not as felicitous as those of Jesus, her Lord; but, I think she did very well in the circumstances.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Brian
No dispute that Christ's pre-existence is evidenced in each gospel.
My observation that Mark has an abrupt beginning to match his abrupt ending still stands.

BrianR said...

Helen Jacobi at 11 minutes in: 'I can see how some people believe that [sc. physical resurrection of body of Christ] and I could be comfortable with that but I can flip both ways [ between 'mystical' and 'physical'] depending on how I feel.' There was no attempt to 'trap' her at all. these are her own words. His question was open and was answered openly, along with her open admission that this is not what the Bible actually teaches - along with her overt rejection of a sacrificial understanding of Jesus's death, again with the honest admission that this is in contradiction with what the Bible says - and what the liturgy of the Eucharist has always declared. 'We can't believe that today' were her actual words, i.e. pure 1960s 'Honest To God' liberalism. And of course Jesus said nothing about etc etc, and his death was - well, what was his death? Apparently some kind of political injustice, the sort that happens every day. And why does it matter to me? I came away quite uncertain why I should expend time, money and energy on this religion.
It seemed very much to me that this was a woman who had an evangelical experience as a teenager (her references to being 'born again') which she now wanted to repudiate. No surprise there. I've never heard of anyone being converted to liberal religion 'from the world', but I know plenty who believed or half-believed in their teenage years, then gradually left that behind. Liberal religion has from the very beginning being parasitic in character, and reading a book - 'lots of it, lots more than the Pentecostalists do in their services!' - that you don't really believe (or huge hunks of it anyway) in lovely old mock-Gothic churches built to evoke the now-repudiated faith of the 13th century only makes the point for me.
The blasphemous "jokes" - "to make you think outside the square", of course - about the Theotokos and the Christ Child are all of a piece with the parasitism, since a parasite not only occupies the nest but attacks the host.

Jean said...

- "Why shouldn't the resurrection accounts be as different as other aspects of each of the gospels are different to the others?"

Just a stab in the dark. Perhaps because those writing the gospel accounts were by nature and by spirit drawn to recording in different ways and placed emphasis on some events while witnessing aspects of other events from varying angles. However, the empty tomb and the physically risen Christ appearing was central to them all at that point and beyond. The transformation in their lives after this time being living proof.

For me this Easter what compelled was how the life Christ offers in rising from the dead impacts completely on how we see the world and events if we but grasp it's full meaning. It is the full meaning I am wrestling with : )


P.S. While I am not too enthralled by Helen's vision of Heaven I have to agree with Ron in that it sounds like the interviewer was out for blood, notwithstanding the irony of critiquing Christianity on the basis of claiming the church selects ameniable verses while using selected versus himself to point out how misguided the bible is. Oh well, may God give him grace when he meets the One he called so small : )

BrianR said...

An abrupt beginning in Mark, yes - but I think there *is* a prologue before time, in the modified verse I cited.
I owe this insight to Stephen Noll (ex-Trinity Ambridge, ex-VC Uganda Christian U):
Interestingly Noll was a Unitarian before college and was taught that Jesus was a man chosen by God etc, so no Trinity, no incarnation, no Virgin Birth, no miracles, no atonement, no resurrection - well, yes, the 'mystical' or 'spiritual' idea can be found among them - but that can be easily psychologised away. Feuerbach, anyone?
Actually the divinity of Christ is obvious to anyone who reads Mark's Gospel clearly and discerns the implications of Jesus' words (forgiving sin) and works (ruling nature). You can only dismiss this if you hold that work is late and mythological (as Crossan does). Liberal religion is always reductionist in character because it takes its plausibility structure from prevailing norms of secular culture - as Helen Jacobi openly admits ('We can't believe that now').

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter,
Is there a number of ecumenical councils that Anglicans agree had the authority of the whole church? This isn't a trick; I assume at most the first seven, but it could be fewer? Certainly it's not going to include Trent, because of some highly inconvenient wording!


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Nick
The Anglican church via the 39 Articles holds that councils may err so I don't think we hold to the "authority" of any council save for that in Jerusalem (Acts 15).

Of course we accept that (i) the first ecumenical councils gave us the creeds; (ii) that most councils prior to 1054 were councils of the whole, undivided church; and (iii) we accept the conciliar (and somewhat complex) decision-making behind the filioque clause added to the Nicene Creed.

Here in ACANZP the two bishops in the Diocese of Waikato and Taranaki, to say nothing of our Three Tikanga arrangements, are a walking back of at least one Nicene canon regarding episcopal jurisdiction!

There are some Anglicans who hold to a formula along the lines of two testaments, four gospels, three creeds, three (or is it four?) councils as defining for our doctrine.

Father Ron Smith said...

Sometimes, Peter, I am thankful that I am no 'Gospel Scholar'. This leaves me free to be open to 'all the Scriptures of the New Te4stament' without any 'scholarly' or indeed 'intellectual' bias. However, I do value the many reports given to us in scripture by the Writers of the N.T., giving weight to ther relative material excperience of and closeness to Jesus. I am also acutely aware of the political and religious situation in which it they were writing.

I listen to, and read, some of the discourses about the variable accounts of what happened in the time of Jesus and immediately after - in the Gospels and Acts of Luke, and then; by acts of faith, which are my experience in different places and at different times; I have found myself believing in the core message of all four Gospels which, for me, are central to my beliefs: the Incarnation, liberating life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and the role of the Holy Spirit in mediating knowledge and experience of the eternal effect of the Jesus phenomenon in the world He helped create.

I have no great need to 'harmonise' the jot, tittle and iota of the recorded accounts. Rather, I rely on their accumulated and practical effects upon my life and the lives of people I meet, know and trust. I leave all linguistic and philosophical discussions, and hard-line assertions, to 'the scholars'. I have to live with MY faith, as they do with theirs. In the meantime, there is the real world of today to deal with, and help redeem. Christ IS Risen, Alleluia!

However, mine is a simple faith, but intensely real. Thanks be to God

Father Ron Smith said...

Nick, do you seriously contend that, unless Christians abide by the decision of the Council of Trent they cannot be truly 'Christian" ?
If you do then most Christans may be apostate - in your eyes. at least.

Peter Carrell said...

Thank you Ron
It is poor biblical scholarship (in my view) which engages with issues in the scriptural texts in such a way that disturbs faith rather than deepens it.

My own faith in the risen Christ wonders at this great mystery and praises God for what he did and for the hope we have in Christ of eternal life.

I am also mindful, as I am sure you are to, of the benefits of scholarship in the task of apologetics; a task which is sometimes challenged when non-Christians challenge us about scriptural inconsistencies.

Father Ron Smith said...

Yes, Peter, I do agree that 'scriptural inconsistencies' have to be dealt with, but not necessarily in ways that deplete the faith 'that is in us' who believe. The scriptures themselves, we must all remember, were written by fallible human beings. There was no teletype transcipt available in those days - nor even now - in our understanding of God's purpose for and meaning in our lives. All I do know is that the Holy Spirit is still working - in Christians will ing to listen - to help us understand, more accurately - God's dealings with us in our contemporary world,

"When the Spirit comes, He will LEAD YOU INTO All truth" - Jesus.

Father Ron Smith said...

" Liberal religion is always reductionist in character because it takes its plausibility structure from prevailing norms of secular culture'
- Brian Kelly -

Well, I suppose the Scribes and Pharisees would have thought this about the 'liberalism' of Jesus in His day. No difference here, then. Why is it that conservatives Christians have such a problem with the scriptural edict: "The Truth will set you free". Maybe some of us still await the time when, as Jesus foretold: "when the Spirit comes, He will lead you into ALL the Truth" - Maybe some are still waiting?

How liberalising was the teaching of Jesus in His Incarnate Presence. And how the authorities hated that. And look what they did to Him because of it. However, Jesus did have the very lkast word. He freed us from 'The Law of Sin and Death'. Sometimes it seems the rigorists want to reinstate that Law - for others, but not themselves, whomn they regard as 'sinless'. Like the Pharisee in the Tempole, if you really are sinless, maybe the dying and rising of Christ cannot do anything for you. Christ is risen, Alleluia. He is risen indeed!