Tuesday, April 10, 2018

On the resurrection in 2018 (Part 2)

I finished part 1 of this mini-series with this:

Why are the scriptural accounts so at odds with each other?

Even if we can make some generalised sense of the five accounts, why are they so different to each other? Why couldn't, say, at least one of the gospels tell us of the encounter with more than five hundred men? How come one woman does not make it into the list Paul reproduces? (It is not as though his ministry was averse to naming, welcoming and commending leading women.) Why does Luke make such a crass subversion of Mark 16:7 in his 24:6, reversing Galilee as a destination to meet the risen Jesus to a place where Jesus predicted his resurrection? (Matthew is more subtle: he repeats Mark and then promptly tells us the risen Jesus met the women in Jerusalem.) Why do Matthew, Luke and John each have different commissionings by Jesus (respectively Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:44-53; John 20:21-23)?

Funnily enough, this morning's sermon, preached by a colleague at an induction, provides an insight into story-telling which is at odds with itself. Some readers here will know the name Lester Pfankuch, a clergyman of this and the Nelson Dioceses.  Lester has gone to be with the Lord, but he was an extraordinarily funny story-teller and his stories enlivened many sermons and talks, to say nothing of hilarious conversations. To be frank, some of his stories seemed a little too good to be true and I think he took some poetic licence when he told some stories. Mostly fact-filled but perhaps some twirls and frills to lend colour and add humour to the yarn? Anyway, in this morning's sermon my colleague told a Pfankuch story about how he came to be called to be the vicar of a certain parish. But in my mind that story was at odds with a different Pfankuch story I had heard many years ago about his calling to the same parish! The only three facts common to the stories were (1) Lester himself, a real person; (2) the parish concerned; (3) the bishop concerned. Actually, there is a fourth fact: (4) Lester was the same story-teller of the (apparently) contradictory stories!

Variations across the scriptural accounts of the resurrection arguably also involved some similar kinds of common facts such as (1) Jesus himself, a real person; (2) an empty tomb discovered on the third day by women; (3) conviction on the part of many disciples that Jesus was alive; (4) description of the meaning of the empty tomb and the conviction that Jesus was alive in terms of "resurrection," "raised from the dead," etc; (5) an associated conviction that the risen Jesus wanted his followers to continue the mission.

But recognising that some common facts across most, if not all the scriptural accounts can be plausibly proposed may help our sense of solid history to the resurrection (the tomb was empty, Jesus did appear to many, and the many became convinced that Jesus was raised from the dead) but it does not change our bewilderment as readers of these accounts.

Why is there not a stronger trace of the (most likely) earliest written account of resurrection appearances (1 Corinthians 15) in the later accounts (likely, in order, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John)? Surely, if the risen Jesus spoke specific words of commissioning to his disciples there would be greater similarity in words at the ends of Matthew and Luke's gospels? How, in short, do we explain the variations across the scriptural accounts?

I confess, by the way, that I have not reminded myself of what Tom Wright has said in his bog book on the resurrection, Jesus and the Victory of God. Here is my suggestion ...

1. We recognise - in keeping with the list in 1 Corinthians 15 - that there were many appearances of the risen Jesus,thus many stories were told and each gospel writer had a range of testimonies to report, whether in fairly direct fashion (e.g. the startling discovery of the empty tomb) or in a creative manner, where "creative" means a bare story is told in order to make theological points (e.g. the road to Emmaus story (Luke 24: 13-35 and compare with Mark 16:12-13) or the Sea of Tiberias catch of fish (John 21).

2. We set John's Gospel to one side. John through 19 chapters has already done his own thing with the stories and speeches of Jesus and he does that again in chapters 20-21. He connects with the synoptic tradition (empty tomb, encounters in Jerusalem [Luke, Matthew] and an encounter in Galilee [Matthew, Mark], consistent presence of Mary Magdalene and Peter as key figures in the synoptic tradition), includes a story about doubt (compare Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:38) and, like the Synoptics, does not follow Paul's Corinthian list re order of appearances. But the overall effect of John's narration is a very different testimony to the risen Jesus, including testimony to Jesus saying things in keeping with the theological themes of John 1-19.

3. We then ask what were the three situations the accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke were likely responding to.

4. Mark, likely the earliest of the gospels, presents the drama of discovery of the empty tomb, a key material fact in the conviction that Jesus rose from the dead. By stopping there (i.e. I count 16:9-20 as a later supplied ending, not Mark's original ending) Mark complements the Corinthian list. Dare we say that he presumes his readers know of that list of appearances and expects them to remember that list as the "what happens next"?

4. Matthew and Luke both mention doubts among the disciples (Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:38). Both include stories which appear to be intentionally apologetic, defending the claim that Jesus rose from the dead from alternative explanations. Matthew 28:11-15 defends the Christian claim against the (apparently continuing) explanation that the tomb was empty because the disciples spirited the body of Jesus away from the tomb.* Luke 24:36-43 defends the Christian claim against the explanation that the appearances of Jesus as one raised from the dead were simply appearances of the ghost of Jesus.

Thus each gospel seems to be shaping its resurrection narratives to deal with questions their respective communities (i.e. audiences) were grappling with. Perhaps this is a further sign that each gospel is written many decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus, at a point when the impressiveness of the Corinthian list was losing its lustre.

When Paul wrote about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 in the 50s AD, his readers, potentially at least, could have talked to Peter or James or other apostles. If, as many scholars suppose, Matthew and Luke are written down in the 80s AD, that is after most people in Paul's list have died (an exception being the author of John's Gospel, likely still alive in Ephesus), then we can imagine a community in which some sceptics are wondering what the "appearances" were all about: was it just the ghost of Jesus which was seen? No, says Luke. What, it was being said in a Matthean community close to Jerusalem, about the explanation our Jewish cousins and friends keep putting about, that the disciples stole Jesus' body? No, says Matthew. Not so.

In sum: is the best explanation for the variations across the scriptural accounts an explanation which makes some assumptions about varying situations for the communities within which and for which the gospels were written?

*Incidentally, we should not presume that the tomb of Jesus remained empty for long after the resurrection so that a sceptic in Jerusalem in (say) 50 AD (or in 2018 AD) could be taken along to it and shown the tomb in all its emptiness. The first Christians were not museum makers or maintainers. There is no reason to suppose that the tomb was not subsequently used to receive another burial and thus was resealed with a different body resposing in it.


Anonymous said...

Peter, your question and answer bring back fond memories of puzzling this out for an examination in my undergraduate days. I am sure that my reverend and dear professor would have given you an exceptionally high mark for your explanation, which is close to that of our course text, Norman Perrin's Introduction to the New Testament.

My own answer then was that the variations in the accounts might indeed have manifested some community distinctives, but that the causal arrow may have pointed, not just from a shared resurrection experience through local traditions to the several evangelists, but also from resurrection appearances to several apostles who taught the community distinctives that influenced the later evangelists' accounts. On that view, each evangelist blended a few common details with a richer local memory to recount the first Easter. And each did so to explain to a rising generation both what all Christians knew and also how their elders had come to follow Jesus in the Way of Damascus or Judaea or wherever. Thus, I argued, it was anachronistic to expect the diverse communities and their respective gospels to be branch offices with corroborating memoranda of meetings with Jesus on file. Rather they were unpacking the freighted mystery of incarnation in ways that they themselves, and the canonising generations after them, saw as complementary rather than as conflicting.

To me, this hypothesis made better sense of what then perplexed me-- the variety of the incidents that the evangelists had counted as resurrection appearances. To my examiner, it showed that I had understood his question and Perrin's answer, and so he gave me full credit. And few years later, the young Bart Ehrman thought that it, along with my then unfashionable interest in Byzantium, was suspiciously pious. But life happens, we think, the Lord shows us things, we learn. All of us understand the resurrection differently now.


Father Ron Smith said...

I suppose, Peter, that if each of us - especially the clergy - were challenged to give a specific account of how we were convinced of the resurrection of Jesus our stories would be very different. Personal experience of a spiritual phenomenon like faith in an 'unseen God' will be different for each person. When Christ's Resurrection cannot be scientifically proved, a lot depends on the individual faith quotient for a reasonable explanation of its veracity for the person concerned. Also, time is one of the tools of an altered perception.

Christ is risen, Alleluia! He is Risen indeed, Alleluia, Alleluia!
("I KNOW that my Redeemer Liveth!")

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Ron and Bowman!

Anonymous said...

Could any other sign from the Trinity have conveyed their concern for the human prospect?


Jean said...

Different accounts in different books about the resurrection do not concern me - which I am not quite sure

One often here’s the ‘no two witnesses have the same story’ answer to many situations where conflicting information is apparently conveyed. However, I was still surprised last year to hear an ex-policeman say that if all the witnesses stories were about the same they knew the witnesses were colluding and that the hardest part of the job was to piece together the picture of what happened from the multiple witness accounts. People focus on different things according to what they see or hear, what they think is important or what impacted them the most when recounting past happenings.

Writers have similar variations, their writing is not necessarily chronological, they may wish to highlight a certain aspect whether to make a particular point or because of their background e.g. Luke (was he a doctor?) lends them to a particular angle, they may use different sources and they may not include everything they know in what they write.

As the scribes were both writers and witnesses (in many cases) I therefore find the hotch potchness of the accounts unsurprising. As for Paul not mentioning women well if he knew no one had believed the first women who saw Jesus he may not have recounted the witnesses he knew his audience would count as credible.

I still see the end results of what has been written as being scripted by the Holy Spirit and therefore reliable as it stands. I understand the value of story and parable, however, when a piece of writing is not specifically scripted as a parable or analogy in scripture I do not take it as so. This is because God once gifted me with a vision which confirmed a fact communicated in the OT (although this was not the message of the vision); later I encountered this fact as being taught as ‘merely a metaphor’ or an ‘analogy’ to convey a theological understanding. Although I had never thought it was an analogy by then I knew it wasn’t ,and it was a caution to be extra careful of adding ones own interpretation because we can’t conceive it being or having been a tangible reality.

Anonymous said...

I am very appreciative, Peter, of the presentation in these two posts on the biblical resurrection accounts. Might I express surprise that, other than an allusion by Jean (who at the same time advocates for individual revelation as a trumping hermeneutical tool), there is no mention of inspiration or its effect on these texts. My surprise is heightened that no one is highlighting this… Were I to post these posts, I think I can imagine being strongly censured for not making this explicitly crystal clear…

Might I be forgiven for thinking that many of your readers would see inspiration, at a minimum, ensuring the truth of the text within the genre of that particular piece of text?

Instead, the model within the conversation here appears bent towards a human-error/limitations approach with multiple witnesses to the same historical event – an approach which is adamantly opposed (regularly by the same people) when it comes to the topic-which-may-not-be-named-here within the biblical texts.

That there are nearly no intersecting facts in the various resurrection accounts, and contradictions beyond what is provided here, is then used to argue for the historicity of an empty-tomb-resurrection. The question that immediately follows is: proponents of this theory, how would you imagine truly contradictory resurrection stories to look so that you would no longer be able to let them lead to your conclusion that their contradictions mean it is historical?

What difference do people here see that inspiration makes to mistaken human recollection?

Accepting the historicity of the exception, in Jesus’ case, to Roman practice to deny burial of those crucified, I cannot recall anyone suggesting the place where Jesus’ body was laid being reused – and I’m trying to imagine, from a simply human perspective, how such a suggestion would have concretely felt. The suggestion that anyone a couple of decades later would even consider seeking out the tomb to ascertain the historicity of the resurrection is ahistorical. Bodies decomposed quickly, and the bones were then kept on shelves in an ossuary. No one in 50 AD would think that showing an empty tomb proved a person had risen two decades earlier!

So, following the methodology of these posts, the first account (two decades after the events) of the resurrection makes no reference to an empty tomb. And the next account (another decade and a half later) makes no reference to resurrection appearances. Whilst one can account for significantly different locations of the risen Jesus – he is not limited by place – there is no accounting for the different locations of those to whom he appears: “he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem”/”Go to Galilee”.

What seems to be happening within the conversations here is an approach, regularly denigrated when I use it, that understands faith in the Risen Jesus to precede the first accounts we have and to be the ongoing context within which we read and proclaim these accounts.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!


Anonymous said...

"The historical datum now before us is a widely held, consistently shaped and highly influential belief: that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead. This belief was held by virtually all the early Christians for whom we have evidence. It was at the centre of their characteristic praxis, narrative, symbol and belief; it was the basis of their recognition of Jesus as Messiah and lord, their insistence that the creator god had inaugurated the long-awaited new age, and above all their hope for their own future bodily resurrection. The question we now face is obvious: what caused this belief in the resurrection of Jesus?"

-- N. T. Wright (2003) The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press. Kindle 15079-15083.

Bosco, I do not know why Peter was interested in this old puzzler, but as he posed it according to the guild rules of neutestamentlers, I replied more or less in kind. If his OP had been about the historicity of the Resurrection itself, the epistemology of belief in it, the inspiration of scripture with respect to it, etc then I would have submitted a different comment.


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco et al
Your long reply deserves a book length reply (because quite a few issues raised, and the question of inspiration is particularly complex to deal with; to say nothing of making some kind of coherent case for saying the kinds of things I have said about the resurrection as well as the kinds of things I have said over the years re You Know What). So, what follows (over two comments) is a set of observations rather than a comprehensive reply. In no particular order of importance:

(a) Even when we take each gospel account as inspired and therefore, in some sense at least, truth-given-by-God, we may still reckon with the history underlying this set of inspired accounts, in a manner similar to reckoning with the history generally underlying the gospels, if only for the reason that we believe we are dealing with an actual human being who did things and to whom things were done. Otherwise we could be dealing with a fictional character and four "novels" ... which we might be ... although a surprising number of people think we are not, probably because they think the incarnation was a reality and not a theological idea.

(b) it is straightforward to construct an imagined set of gospel accounts which are contradictory to the extent that we could not say that (i) the tomb was empty; (ii) nor that there was any significant reason for thinking of the resurrection as an event. Here goes: Mark gives an account in which the women discover the tomb is not empty but an angel nearby says not to worry because the soul of Jesus has been exalted to God's right hand; Matthew denies this because his women discover the tomb is empty; Luke follows Mark in having the body of Jesus still in the tomb but gives us the Emmaus account with Jesus explaining to the two disciples that while his body lies in the tomb, they will have a sense of his presence with them whenever they break bread in his name; John shares Matthew's enthusiasm for describing the tomb as empty' but Paul confuses things in 1 Corinthians by saying that, despite various claims, the only solid account of an appearance of Jesus after his death is by the two on the way to Emmaus and his own vision on the way to Damascus.

Peter Carrell said...

(cont'd) Dear Bosco et al,

(c) "What seems to be happening within the conversations here is an approach, regularly denigrated when I use it, that understands faith in the Risen Jesus to precede the first accounts we have and to be the ongoing context within which we read and proclaim these accounts." I think you have already made the point that Paul is the exception here: he did not have faith in the Risen Jesus when the Risen Jesus encountered him! But, generally, for the most part, the accounts we now have, in writing, have been preceded by faith in the Risen Jesus. Yet they are trying to give expression to the point in the first days after the crucifixion when there was no faith in the Risen Jesus and thus something happened which gave rise to faith: that is, there is some attempt in these accounts to give a history of the germination of faith.

(d) "Instead, the model within the conversation here appears bent towards a human-error/limitations approach with multiple witnesses to the same historical event – an approach which is adamantly opposed (regularly by the same people) when it comes to the topic-which-may-not-be-named-here within the biblical texts." I think I see that point you are making: that on homosexuality, ancient biblical writers may have been mistaken and/or had limitations in their understanding. That is possible. We could also talk about limitations in the NT re (say) divorce and remarriage because (e.g.) the NT never considers abuse in marriage as a reason to end a marriage. Yet, even acknowledging all such possible limitations and possible mistakes, just as we talk about the faith in the Risen Jesus which precedes the accounts of the resurrection, might we not also talk about the conviction that sex is only approved by God within marriage between a man and a woman as the conviction that precedes the various statements, stories and sayings in Scripture about sex, sexuality and marriage?