The Resurrection of the Son of God. By N. T. Wright. Fortress. Reviewed by Gary Anderson, Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame. First Things 137 (November 2003): 51-54.
The past decade or so has produced numerous challenges to reading the Bible as a trustworthy historical witness. Scholars in the field of Old Testament studies question every detail of the pre-exilic corpus. As for the New Testament, there is the infamous Jesus Seminar and the seemingly annual appearance of its heretical claims festooned on the cover of a prominent national periodical. For many orthodox believers, these problems are rooted in the historical-critical enterprise itself. Yet one should recall that the move to read the Bible historically took root in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries primarily among devout Christian thinkers. Rather than attempting to harmonize the differences between conflicting biblical accounts, these interpreters tried to let each voice speak reverently on its own.
More troubling for me is just what the theological gain will be from the project Wright has set out for himself. An objective, hard-hitting critique of the Jesus Seminar on purely historical grounds is certainly welcome. An objective historian can find reasons to affirm the resurrection stories. But the theological task of accounting for the identity of Jesus Christ must rest on something larger than just an historical affirmation of the resurrection. Can the larger question of identity move forward along the purely historical path that Wright proposes? The criticisms that Hans Frei made of historical approaches such as this one in his The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (1974) are hard to answer.
In Wrightʼs view the only path forward is the establishment of a sequence of events in the life of Jesus that stand up to the scrutiny of historians. This historically reconstructed sequence of events will not conform fully to the telling of the story that the Gospel writers themselves have offered the Church. The Gospel writers wrote in the context of the evolving Church and sometimes skewed their portraits to match ecclesial interest rather than historical reality. In this particular volume these worries are not so weighty, since all Wright sets out to determine is whether the resurrection as an event is true or not.
But when the same set of methods is turned on the full Gospel narrative, the reader has to accept a whole set of historical judgments that Wright makes in order to proceed to the plane of theological reflection and affirmation. Having read a good deal of Wright, I, for one, am not prepared to follow all of his historical reconstructions. No doubt they are learned; but as examples of historical imagination they remain speculative and somewhat idiosyncratic.
What Happened That First Easter? Can There Be A Literal Truth to Resurrection? By A. E. Harvey, former canon and subdeacon of Westminster, who has authored several books on Jesus and the New Testament. TLS. Times Literary Supplement, April 18, 2003, issue 5220, p. 5-6.
/Snipped introductory outline of Wrightʼs book …A number of significant and early New Testament texts summarize the story of Jesus without any reference to the resurrection: he was “exalted to the right hand of God” — this statement about one who had been condemned as a dangerous sectarian by his compatriots and executed as a criminal by the Romans was evidently felt by some to be a sufficient expression of a momentous claim: again all appearances, Jesus had been vindicated and glorified by God. Wright would reply that it was nevertheless the resurrection that was the primary article of faith and proclamation: if it is not explicitly stated, it is simply taken for granted, and explanations (ingenious if not always entirely persuasive) can be proposed for its omission. But This Hardly Settles The Question. [emphasis added by E.T.B.] If some early credal formulations (as many believe these passages to be) fail to mention it at all, can we say that the resurrection — in the sense of the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Jesus on earth — was always and from the very beginning the essential focus of Christian belief to quite the extent that is claimed throughout this study?
But if not, what are the consequences? Might not the ascension and exaltation of Jesus be an alternative way of describing the mysterious truth of Jesusʼ continuing existence? Here, once again, we are up against the constraints of logical analysis. In logic, the statement that one thing is the case excludes the opposite. But is this true of the language of the afterlife? Wright begins with a clean logical distinction. The pagans, he says, denied resurrection; the Jews believed in it [though that was not true of all Jews — E.T.B.] It follows that those who proclaimed Jesusʼ resurrection were speaking within a Jewish context of belief. But here logic is surely misapplied. The Greeks had a word for a person coming back to life: anastasis, resurrection. Of course they “denied” it — in principle. Everyone agreed that the dead are dead and do not come back to life. Yet strange things seemed to happen. In a culture where burial or cremation were carried out within a day or two after death, there were instances of wrong diagnosis — people thought to be dead revived just in time to escape their own funerals. Stories circulated of revival after a longer period, and some people evidently believed them. Similarly among the Jews: it was not thought possible that Lazarus could be brought back to life when his body had been in the tomb long enough to be noisomely decomposing. Yet stories of such “resurrection” could still be told with some possibility (however small) of being believed.
[Actually lots of stories of various miracles, even Matthewʼs “raising of the many” from “many opened tombs” passed muster as believable back then. — E.T.B.] The Study Of Vocabulary In Different Ancient Cultures Is Not Enough To Define The Boundaries Of Credibility. [Emphasis added. — E.T.B.] And it was not long before people of Greek and Roman background found themselves prepared to believe in Jesusʼ resurrection [another miracle in a world of them — E.T.B.] without a preliminary course in Jewish beliefs about resurrection and the “afterlife.”
But logic also stumbles in the face of “resurrection” itself. The word, as Wright readily admits, was capable of metaphorical use. In Jewish literature it was a metaphor for national revival, the return from exile and the renewal of a covenant relationship with God. In Christianity it became a metaphor for a “radical change of behavior.” But to speak in this way is to assume that there was a determinate meaning of the word that was not metaphorical.
[True, and that is a point I have been seeking to make concerning terms like “ends of the earth” with Bob. — E.T.B.] This “literal use and concrete referent” Wright finds, not in the rare and barely credible cases of people apparently coming back to life, but in the resurrection of Jesus. It was this factual event which allowed the word to have a metaphorical career in Christianity comparable with, but different from, that which it had in Judaism. What can be said about this factual reality? Wright extrapolates from the resurrection stories in the gospels. These are full of details, he suggests, that are both surprising and unlikely to have been invented for dogmatic or apologetic purposes.
[So are details of dreams, and mixed up hearsay. Certainly early Christians, eager for more information than the very limited number of sayings and doings preserved in the earliest Gospel and Q, went on to create not only the infancy narratives, but the resurrection narratives as well (neither of which are found in Mark, the earliest Gospel). People were DYING to know more, and every little tale or idle experience that someone related to someone would be magnified by that desire. Take the example of the three added endings to Mark, or the many Gospels and Acts that followed. — E.T.B.]
In brief: Jesus was both like and unlike his former self; he was recognizable but not recognized; he was physical enough to cook food and eat it, but had no difficulty passing through locked doors; he spoke with magisterial authority and yet “some doubted.” [The mention of “doubt” normally accompanied stories of miracles. It was part and parcel of telling a miracle story. — E.T.B.] What sort of existence is this? Wright struggles to find appropriate words and suggests “metaphysical,” “transphysicality,” then, was the “literal use and concrete referent” of the word “resurrection.” This is what happened to Jesus, and this is what will happen to us. But can he really mean this? Is It The Christian Hope That We Shall Ourselves Cook And Eat And Pass Through Doors And Be Sometimes Recognized, Sometimes Not, By Our Friends? [Emphasis added. — E.T.B.]
Is this a “literal” description of the resurrection that is promised to all? Surely we must allow here for some epistemic distance between an utterly mysterious happening and the ability of human being to put it into words? [And surely those who are not Christians must be allowed doubts concerning such tales and their “details,” especially in lieu of the fact that the later the Gospel the greater number of post-resurrection tales it contained, the greater number of post-resurrection words spoken by Jesus, and the more details. — E.T.B.]
Surely we must be ready to admit an element of “as if” [an element not of reality but of metaphor — E.T.B.] in the accounts of the empty tomb and of supernatural appearances? The suggestion that the gospel stories of the resurrection of Christ provide a kind of template for imagining the resurrection of each one of ourselves surely crosses the bounds of credibility. Are we not mistaking imaginative narrative and metaphorical language for literal description? Similarly, when Wright castigates those Christians (the majority!) who confuse resurrection with going to heaven, may this not be a matter of preferring one metaphor to another when describing the same mysterious reality?
But it may be that the issue is a more fundamental one. This book is the third (and is promised not to be the last) in the impressive series of his scholarly studies to which Wright has given the title, “Christian Origins and the Question of God.” If the real question is indeed “the question of God,” then the kind of language one believes it is appropriate to use about the mysteries of life beyond the grave may also be the kind of language one will use about God himself. Here Wright appears to endorse a certain EVANGELICAL LITERALNESS. [Emphasis Added. — E.T.B.]
His God is intensely personal, imagined as adopting the strategies of a human being. He is a God who can be described as having “dealt with the problem” of evil, or of sin, or as one whose promise has “got stuck at the point of Israelʼs rebellion.” Accordingly (in relation to the present subject) we read that God “accomplished” the resurrection. We Are To Believe, That Is To Say, Not Just That Something Was Experienced On The First Easter Day, Which Enabled The Disciples To Believe That Jesus Was In Some Sense Alive — Something That By Its Very Nature Must Elude Definition Or Precise Description — But That God Literally “Accomplished” A Unique And Decisive Intervention In Human History, Involving The Removal And Subsequent Transformation Of A Human Body. [Emphasis added. That statement neatly defines a division between Christian theologians. The more liberal view being less defined, less dependant on the Bible understood in an “Evangelical literal” way, but also less capable of disproof, while Wrightʼs view remains relatively more disputable amongst theologians and scholars because of his dependence on reading the Bible in an “Evangelical literal” way, which raises more prima facia questions in both Testaments. That split represents the twin lines of tension placed on any and all “holy books” these days. Even Hindus can be fundamentalistic about the Upanishads being “the oldest book in the world,” and do not wish any of their holy books questioned as to their late historical origins and historical/theological developments, nor Moslems, when it comes to the Koran. So itʼs not a great time on this planet for “holy books“ of all the worldʼs religions. Christians luckily were able to let the great libraries of the ancient world lie fallow and fall into decrepitude, and even luckier to be able to burn all of the works of early detractors of the Bible and the Gospels, so we will never know, for instance, what information Porphyryʼs multi-volume critique of the book of Daniel contained, nor ever read the multitude of contra-Christian references he probably culled from ancient libraries filled with books that no longer exist. Too bad. Itʼs like what will happen once all of the great apes are extinct. Some people living in the far future will only have man and perhaps some species of rats to compare and study. Lucky thing we found the Dead Sea scrolls! Even luckier if we had recordings of every ancient preacher and the complete writings of every religion from the period surrounding the birth of Christianity. But we donʼt, and of course most Christians donʼt think twice about such matters. — E.T.B.]
Mention Of Wright And Other Evangelical Bible Scholars With A Question Raised
The Public Square; First Things 93 (May 1999): 77-95. The Evangelical Mind, Again [Note especially the sentence below, “That [they have] made, and will continue to make, a substantial mark on American academic life seems indisputable, especially in history, philosophy, and, more recently, sociology. But the overall effect will likely be to fortify other, nonevangelical Christian approaches to scholarship, rather than to generate an original, distinctively evangelical life of the mind.” And ending with the question, ”will they still be Evangelicals?” — E.T.B.]
The first thing to be said about the evangelical mind, wrote Mark Noll in his much discussed The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, “is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” In recent years, however, that has changed dramatically, according to James C. Turner, writing in the Catholic magazine Commonweal. He cites evangelical intellectuals such as George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Mouw, and, of course, Mark Noll. Turner doesnʼt make a point of it, but a good deal of this evangelical ferment is happening at Notre Dame, where Turner is director of the Erasmus Institute. He does lift up the importance of Books and Culture, a fine publication that first appeared in 1995, and aims to be among evangelicals what the New York Review of Books is in the general culture. And he lifts up the singular role of Calvin College in gestating and nurturing an intellectual renascence in an evangelical world that has typically oscillated between cool and hostile toward the life of the mind.
Thinking about what is happening among evangelicals, Turner writes, “Roman Catholics of a certain age will be inclined to draw an analogy to the experience of American Catholic intellectuals in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.” Maybe, although more recent studies tend to counter the stereotype of anti-intellectualism in the “ghetto of pre-Vatican II Catholicism.” In thinking about the public order, notes Turner, Calvin College has drawn heavily on the legacy of the Dutch politician Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), but he agrees with Mark Nollʼs observation that recent evangelical political thinkers have also borrowed “from the Anabaptist heritage, from the mainline Protestantism of Reinhold Niebuhr, or from the neoconservative Catholicism of Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel.” Turner shares a widespread skepticism about whether the evangelical thinkers will make much of an impact on the large and multifarious worlds of evangelicalism, but of this he is more certain: “That [they have] made, and will continue to make, a substantial mark on American academic life seems indisputable, especially in history, philosophy, and, more recently, sociology. But the overall effect will likely be to fortify other, nonevangelical Christian approaches to scholarship, rather than to generate an original, distinctively evangelical life of the mind.” And perhaps that is the way it should be. Appearing about the same time as Turnerʼs article is a cover story in Christianity Today celebrating “The New Theologians” (Kevin Vanhoozer, N. T. Wright, Richard Hays, Ellen Charry, Miroslav Volf). CT exults in the fact that such figures, who are not ashamed to be called evangelicals, are teaching at universities such as Yale and Duke where the liberals-in antithesis to whom evangelicals define themselves - once held undisputed sway. The CT message is, partly, that we now have some of “our” people planted behind the enemy lines and, partly, that a few members of the C team are playing with the A team. The distinctly defensive tone is perhaps to be expected in the mainline (if one may be permitted the term) publication of evangelicals who are self-consciously outsiders, in contrast to Turnerʼs appreciation offered from a position of greater cultural confidence. But, apart from a touch of hyperbole in both articles, they give reason to believe that the time is in sight when it will not be accurate to say that “there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Then comes along evangelical sociologist James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia to rain on the party. The question he has been asking in a number of scholarly books is: “Maybe so. But will they then still be evangelicals?“ Thatʼs a subject for another day.
Revised Edition: Holding Onto “No Body,” Or, What Is “Missing” From Conservative Christian Apologetics?
by Edward T. Babinski [Revised the ENDNOTE in “Instance C” and “Instance D,” and added some comments by members of the Holding-Locks email group as a final addenda, 1/21/04 — E.T.B.]
Conservative Christian apologists from the lowliest to the most scholarly (N.T. Wright), continue to dare non-Christians to “find the missing body of Jesus.” Of course, archaeologists will probably never be able to declare with certainty that Jesusʼ corpse is “missing” from either Palestine or planet earth. Like the majority of first-century corpses, it could be dust by now, or scattered bones, or lost in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Neither would the declaration of a “missing” corpse be sufficient to prove that Jesus rose bodily from the dead and ascended bodily into the sky. (A missing corpse would be necessary, but not sufficient evidence.)
What is “missing” is the attention that conservative Christian apologists need to pay to items #1-5, below. Since the items remain contested, so does the entire question of a “missing body.”
Missing Item #1: Uncontested Evidence That Paulʼs Belief In The “Resurrection” Precluded A Body (Husk/Shell) Remaining On The Earth And “Wasting Away”
If Paulʼs verses in 1st Corinthians 15 contain the earliest reference to Jesusʼ “resurrection,” then it is crucial that conservative Christians prove beyond a doubt that Paul understood “resurrection” as leaving no bodily remains behind. Paul mentions that Jesus “appeared” to him and others. But the word, “appear,” is used elsewhere in the Bible to denote visions. Neither are any conversations with Jesus described. (We will see how alleged post-resurrection conversations grew over time, below.) Even in the story that Luke tells of Paulʼs meeting with Jesus, such an appearance consisted of only a bright light accompanied by a voice — so there is no mention of corporeality, no touching Jesus, no eating with him. Paul himself described that “mortal flesh” “wasted away” or was “destroyed,“ and he looked forward to receiving a “spiritual body,” an “eternal dwelling which comes from heaven” not from earth. (2nd Corinthians, chapters 4-5) Paul further explained, “What you sow [in death] is not the future body but a bare grain, whether of wheat or of some other variety.” (1st Corinthians 15:37) This verse has proven a topic of endless debate. But surely the fact was not lost on Paul (or on anyone who has ever seen a seed sprout) that after a “bare grain” is split open by the emerging plant, the seed leaves behind its husk or shell. Paul even added that the “spiritual body” lacked a stomach: “Food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food; but God will do away with both of them” (1st Corinthians 6:13), and, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” (1Cor. 15:50) Neither did Paul mention an “empty tomb.” All he mentioned was Jesus dying and being resurrected.
So what is “missing” is an uncontested answer to the question of whether the earliest resurrection teachings allowed (or disallowed) that Jesus could have left physical remains on earth.
Missing Item #2: Uncontested Evidence That Anyone Knew About An “Empty Tomb” Story Early On
The earliest Gospel that we possess, according to the majority of modern Biblical scholars, is the “Gospel of Mark.” And our earliest copies end with these words:
“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the [empty] tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (NIV, 16:8)
So, the very first tale of an “empty tomb” was combined with these words, “they said nothing to anyone,” or, in other translations, “they told no one.”
In other words the “empty tomb” tale was “told [to] no one.” So no one knew about such a tale early on. For all anyone knows, an “empty tomb” story could have arisen up to forty years later, when the first Gospel (Mark) was completed.
So what is “missing” is uncontested evidence that the “empty tomb” tale was being “told” early on. [SEE NOTE AT END OF ARTICLE]
Missing Item #3: Uncontested Evidence That The “Bodily Ascension” Tale Arose Early On
Paul does not mention the bodily ascension of Jesus (see MISSING ITEM #1).
Neither does Mark nor Matthew. In fact Matthew has the resurrected Jesus say, “I am with you always.”
It is only in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts (both written later than Mark, and probably a little later than Matthew as well) that the tale of Jesusʼ “bodily ascension” is first introduced. Likewise it is only in the Gospel of Luke where the resurrected Jesus takes care to convince the disciples that he is “not a spirit,” but “flesh and bone,” and even eats a piece of fish and honeycomb. And after eating, “he [Jesus] led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them.” (Were they “led” through the streets of Jerusalem “as far as Bethany” by a fish-eating “non-spirit” “flesh and bone” resurrected Jesus?) In the last chapter of the last written Gospel (John) the resurrected Jesus even prepares breakfast (fish and bread) for the apostles. But Luke and John are later tales of the resurrected Jesus, not the earliest tales.
So, what is “missing” is uncontested evidence that the tale of the “bodily ascension” of Jesus was being told early on.
Missing Item #4: Tales Of Meeting With The Resurrected Jesus In The Earliest Gospel
The earliest known copies of Markʼs Gospel end with the words, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the [empty] tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (NIV, 16:8)
Early Christian editors of the Gospel of Mark agreed that its ending seemed so uninspired that they took it upon themselves to add three different endings that included some mention of a meeting with the resurrected Jesus. But none of those three later endings are considered to be original to that Gospel.
If as some have hypothesized, the original scroll of Markʼs Gospel was accidentally torn apart at verse 16:8, and its original ending lost, how could such an embarrassing loss of the resurrection ending of the earliest Gospel have occurred? Seems more likely that it ended there, with such uncertainty because the “empty tomb” story itself was new and uncertain and had not yet been elaborated as it was later to be in Matthew, Luke and John. [SEE NOTE AT END OF ARTICLE]
So what is “missing” is an uncontested tale of meeting with the resurrected Jesus in the earliest Gospel.
Missing Item #5: The Earliest Words Of The Resurrected Jesus. There Are So Few Of Them, Or None, To Begin With. Then They Grew Over Time (As Most Legendary Embellishments Are Capable Of Doing).
The earliest stories by Paul in 1st Corinthians say that Jesus “appeared,” but not where the appearances took place (Galilee or Jerusalem), nor whether any words were spoken by the resurrected Jesus.
The Gospel of Mark contains no tales of resurrection appearances nor words of the resurrected Jesus.
The Gospel of Matthew (chapter 28) contains 79 words of the resurrected Jesus:
“Greetings.Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The Gospel of Luke (chapter 24) contains 191 words of the resurrected Jesus:
“What are you discussing together as you walk along? What things? How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”
“Peace be with you. Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have. Do you have anything here to eat?.This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
[The Acts of the Apostles was also written by Luke around the time of his Gospel. It contains some words of the resurrected Jesus, but Acts is not early, chronologically speaking. The words below were allegedly heard by Paul on his trip to Damascus. But Paul himself in his letters never mentions hearing so many words. They could be a latter expansion/legendary elaboration, which most evangelists are wont to do — just look at how much preaching a pastor can squeeze out of a few words in the Bible even today. Here is Lukeʼs preachy version of what Paul heard, as featured in Lukeʼs Book of Acts chapter 26:
“‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’. ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”]
The Gospel of John (chapters 20 & 21) contains 283 words of the resurrected Jesus:
“Woman, why are you crying? Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for? Mary. Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
“Peace be with you!. Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
“Peace be with you!. Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe. Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
“Friends, havenʼt you any fish?. Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some. Bring some of the fish you have just caught. Come and have breakfast. Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?. Feed my lambs.. Simon son of John, do you truly love me?. Take care of my sheep. Simon son of John, do you love me?. Do you love me?. Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go. Follow me!. If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”
The Gospel of John ends with these words by its author:
“And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written, every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.” (John 21:25)
The “world” could not contain the books? The books we do have that tell of “things Jesus did,” consist of four slim “Gospels,” not one of them over forty pages in length. Two of them, Matthew and Luke, even repeat over 90% of what appears in Mark. So the four Gospels minus the overlapping portions would be even slimmer.
To reiterate the last sentence in the fourth Gospel: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written, every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books.” (John 21:25)
Is there a less convincing way for an allegedly “inspired” book to end? Just notice the authorʼs use of the faltering phrase, “I suppose.” “I suppose” such exaggerated speech made sense to believers back then, who were being entertained by ever new and fabulous tales of Jesusʼ infancy, youth and adulthood churned out by their fellows and incorporated into additional “Gospels” many of which we only know the titles of today. But really, ending an inspired book with a huge exaggeration, followed by the faltering words, “I suppose,” doesnʼt make much of an impression on me.
What is “missing” is anything convincing about the resurrection sayings of Jesus. In the Gospels they grow from no sayings (Mark) to increasingly longer ones (Matthew, Luke, John), and they seem like statements that devout church leaders could and would have put into the resurrected Jesusʼ mouth to suit the early churchʼs belief in its own heavenly centrality and broadening missionary ideals. Like when Matthewʼs resurrected Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Or when Lukeʼs resurrected Jesus says, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Or when Johnʼs resurrected Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. Feed my lambs.“
To reiterate what I said at the beginning, archaeologists will probably never be able to declare with certainty that Jesusʼ corpse is “missing” from either Palestine or planet earth. Like the majority of first-century corpses, it could be dust by now, or scattered bones, or lost in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Neither would the declaration of a “missing” corpse be sufficient to prove that Jesus rose bodily from the dead and ascended bodily into the sky. (A missing corpse would be necessary, but not sufficient evidence.)
And since the above items, #1-5, remain contested, so does the entire question of a “missing body.”
Note to Christian apologists, please donʼt bring up Peterʼs speech in the Book of Acts that mentioned Jesusʼ tomb being empty, because Acts was written AFTER the Gospel of Mark, and by that time the “empty tomb” story was already being elaborated upon and probably had been added anachronistically to Peterʼs Jerusalem speech as well.
Below are four obvious prima facie instances in the Gospels texts themselves, showing how the “empty tomb” tale grew more elaborate in its retelling from Mark to Matthew and Luke.
The Gospel of Mark, ends merely with the empty tomb, and a “young man in a long white garment” who tells the women, “He [Jesus] is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him.” There is no mention of the “young man” being an “angel.” In fact Mark mentioned another “young man” (same Greek phrase) who was present at Jesusʼ arrest. Someone tried to grab the “young man” who “fled” away “naked,” leaving behind the linen cloth he had been wearing. (Mark 14: 50-52) So the “young man” in a “long white garment” sitting in Jesusʼ empty tomb on Sunday morning could be the same “young man” at Jesusʼ arrest. Mark could be trying to impress the reader with the faith of an anonymous “young man” who was the last to leave Jesus when he was arrested (who had to flee away naked), and also the first to arrive at the empty tomb (clothed in a “long white garment” covering his previously naked body). The “young man” could remain unidentified in both cases to draw readers into the tale of Jesusʼ resurrection, to allow them to envision themselves as that young man, and imagine how he went from being naked to clothed in a long white garment — the last to leave Jesus on the night of his betrayal and the first to arrive at Jesusʼ empty tomb full of faith. So by using the phrase, “young man” twice at such crucial times in that Gospel, the author may have been trying to get his readers to identify with that human figure and his faith. But sometime between the writing of Markʼs Gospel and the later three (Matthew, Luke and John) Markʼs description of a “young man” was dropped in favor of purely “angelic” figures. The other Gospels even dropped Markʼs story about the “young man” who “fled away naked at Jesusʼ arrest.” Instead, at the tomb Matthew has “the angel of the Lord who descended from heaven; his countenance like lightening, and his raiment white as snow,” and, Luke has “two men in shining garments [clothes that gleamed like lightning - NIV]…a vision of angels” (Luke 24:4 & 23), and John has, “two angels in white.” So you can see how the story has grown. Not only has the “young man” become an “angel” in Matthew, but in Luke and John he has become “two angels.”
In Mark, the words spoken at the tomb by the “young man” were, “He [Jesus] is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him.”
Matthewʼs “angel” at the tomb speaks the same words as Markʼs “young man,” but Matthew adds that one of the women encountered Jesus briefly on her way back from the tomb.
One of Lukeʼs two “angels” does not speak the same words at the tomb as Markʼs “young man” or Matthewʼs “angel”, instead the words are changed in Luke so that no mention is made of Jesus “going before you into Galilee, there you will see him.” In Luke the words became, “Remember how he spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day raise again.” “Galilee” changes from a place where Jesus has “gone” and where Jesus “will be seen” (in Mark/Matthew), to a place where Jesus gave his discourse about the Son of Man being raised (in Luke). But didnʼt Jesus speak about the resurrection not just in Galilee, but also in Judea? The announcement in Mark is more to the point: “He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him.” Lukeʼs point in his Gospel and Acts was to talk about appearances of the resurrected Jesus in and around Jerusalem (which is where they all occur in the Gospel of Luke and Acts). So it would have been an obvious faux pas to cite the words of Markʼs “young man,” which were: “He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him.” For Luke, the disciples needed to remain in Jerusalem, otherwise the disciples would have been depicted as running off to Galilee (fifty miles from Jerusalem) to see Jesus who had “gone on there before them,“ as Mark (and Matthew) say.
Lukeʼs Jerusalem appearance stories include seeing Jesus in Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem; then in Jerusalem, where the disciples remained; and then on a mountain in Bethany (again not very far from Jerusalem), where Jesus “parted from them.” Luke-Acts added that Jesus told his disciples to “stay in the city,” and that Jesus ascended from mount Olivet, “near Jerusalem, a Sabbathʼs day journey away.”
The changed message at the “empty tomb” suited Lukeʼs collection of Jerusalem appearance stories, thus leaving behind the original story in Mark and Matthew that Jesus went before the apostles to Galilee and thatʼs where Jesus was first seen.
Comparing the messages delivered at the “empty tomb” shows how the story changed, apparently to suit an increasing number of new post-resurrection tales spread perhaps by a growing number of church members in Jerusalem.
Even the story of the “guards at the tomb” (found only in Matthew) provides comparative Gospel readers with evidence of an obvious emendation. The Gospel of Mark mentions no guards at Jesusʼ tomb, and the women go to the tomb “to anoint” Jesusʼ body, their only worry being, who is going to move the stone for them. (If Matthewʼs story about “guards at the tomb” were known when Mark wrote his early Gospel, the woman would have had to worry about the guards even allowing them access to the body). But in Matthew where “guards at the tomb” are assumed, and contact with the body would not be foreseen as possible, the women no longer go “to anoint” Jesus, but merely “to look at the grave.”
Mark and Matthewʼs story of the death of Jesus on the cross are the same, except that Matthew inserts two verses that mention an extraordinary miracle, the “opening of many tombs and the raising of the many” (a miracle that is not referred to in any other Gospel nor in the New Testament as a whole). Matthew also added two earthquakes (again, found nowhere else in the Gospels), one earthquake at Jesusʼ death that opened the graves of the “many saints,” and a second earthquake at the moment when Jesusʼ grave was opened on Sunday morning. Here is Markʼs version, followed by Matthewʼs with the latterʼs miraculous insertions:
MARK, CHAPTER 15
37With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.
38The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
39And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” [or “a son of god” — NIV]
MATTHEW, CHAPTER 27
50 Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.
51 And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
52 And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
53 And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
54 Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.
There is no corroborating testimony of the above fabulous miracles mentioned in Matthew, none elsewhere in the New Testament, nor in Josephus who wrote in 70 A.D., prior to when Matthewʼs Gospel was written. The only mention made to it appears to be found in one late apocryphal Gospel whose author who felt “inspired” to “fill in the blanks” in Matthewʼs story. I am speaking of the Gospel of Nicodemus, whose author added that some of the “raised saints” included “Adam” and “Isaiah.” Matthew did not say who the “raised saints” were, what happened to them, what they said, or how such a miracle so near the time of Jesusʼ own resurrection (and seen by the centurion!), may have affected belief in the resurrection of Jesus that followed a day and a half later and which Matthew says was accompanied by the “many raised saints entering the holy city and appearing to many.”
And if the tale of “many” empty graves could be swallowed by the Matthewʼs day, it should give conservative Christian apologists pause to reflect on how easily the story of one “empty tomb” like Jesusʼ (in Mark) could also have been found believable not long before Matthewʼs Gospel was written. In fact, it makes one wonder, what wonʼt a believer believe?
Finally, note the cumbersome phrase in Matthewʼs tale that they [the raised saints] came out of their graves “after his [Jesusʼ] resurrection.” That phrase was probably added to grant Jesus some sort of priority, i.e., “after HIS resurrection.” But such a phrase only makes the tale less believable (if that is possible), because the Greek states literally that the saints “arose” at Jesusʼ death but did not “come out of their graves” until after Jesusʼ resurrection, a day and a half later. So what where they doing in their “risen” states and in their graves for a day and a half, before they “came out” and went into the holy city? Amazing what a lot of trouble the phrase, “after his resurrection,” can get you into!
End Of Note: End Of Article
Addenda, Comments Shared In The Holding-Lockʼs Email Group
Comment #1: A Modern Day “Appearance Of Jesus To A Multitude”
STEVE: Did you know that Jesus recently miraculously appeared before 6,000 in Nairobi? There are even photos of him and testimonies to his miraculous appearance and disappearance.
This time he went off in a car though, but then vanished without ascending.
BOB [Of Tekton Apologetics]: As for Kenya, get back with me in 5 years and let me know how the movement that surrounds this event is doing.
STEVE: That was 1988 and theyʼre still talking about it. The movement is Christianity BTW. At least it was 6,000 Christians who were calling him “Jesus.” Although others later claimed him to be Maitreya, the crowds were calling “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus of Nazareth!”. As it says on the website 6,000 believed they saw Jesus Christ, in broad daylight. They are not the only Christians who have claimed to see Christian figures to the embarrassment of other Christians as I know you are well aware. was for light relief mostly, but with one serious point which I wondered if anyone would pick up on. That is the gullibility of crowds. 6,000 puts 500 to shame - and see how easily they believed this was Jesus. First hand witnesses even testified with multiple attestations and photographs which is far more impressive than what 1 Cor. 15:6 gives us.
This is of course quite apart from a point Ed makes in his book:
“…when Paul states that Jesus “appeared” to “over 500 brethren at once” (1Cor. 15:6), that would have been to a far greater number of “brethren” than were said to have existed before Jesusʼ physical body supposedly rose into the clouds. (Only 120 “brethren” existed at the time - Acts 1:9, 14-15, 22). So by the Bibleʼs own admission, whoever or whatever may have “appeared” to “over 500 brethren” could not have been a physically resurrected Jesus, since his body left the Earth before that many “brethren” existed.”
BOB: As for the appearance of Jesus to a multitude in Kenya, get back with me in 5 years and let me know how the movement that surrounds this event is doing.
ED: If long term success is your criteria of truth then Taoism and Hinduism must be truer than Christianity, after all, they are older by many centuries. Hey, arenʼt animism and polytheism the oldest religions? Then todayʼs Wiccanʼs and New Agers must be the true faith. For that matter who knows where Christianity will be in the far future? Who knows where the human species will be for that matter? (Oh wait, BOB KNOWS. Last time he entertained doubts they were wearing slinky halter tops at Trader Vicʼs, and Bob was buying the house drinks. It was only a one night stand though.)
And speaking of “getting back to me in five years” hereʼs some OTHER indicators of change over time you ought to consider: All the major universities in America were founded as conservative seminaries to train pastors of a particular denomination, but in the long term, their religious roots withered while their academic levels increased. Go figure. Yale was founded due to the “theological excesses” of Harvard.
Now look at Yale. Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia was founded due to the “theological excesses” of Princeton. But Westminster Seminary is Bob Seelyʼs alma mater and they have published his Biblical flat-earth articles! The list goes on and on. Calvinʼs Academy founded in sixteenth century Geneva had Unitarian profs by the eighteenth century.
The most religiously conservative schools are the ones that havenʼt been around very long, they are the superficial newbies on the block. They spring up in reaction to all of that “higher learning.” When they try to interact with “higher learning” themselves by hiring the most well schooled profs and brightest students, the thoughts and doubts broaden and the original conservatism starts to fade. Thatʼs what can happen to you too Bob! (Hey, I think I see a doubt winking at you in the corner, and boy is she cute!)
Comment #2: Why Did Christianity Succeed?
BOB [of Tekton Apologetics]: See my reply.
Comment #3: What Happened To The Body?
BOB [of Tekton Apologetics]: Tell me what happened to the body of Jesus.
SHARON: Tell me what happened to the body of Vlad Dracula. Maybe what they say about Dracula roaming the night and sucking blood is true after all. According to the USA NETWORK, “Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula“ [Synopsis… along with his beloved wife, Lidia, “incorrupt and entire.” In 1931,explorers dug up the tomb of Vlad Dracula, the Impaler. They found only animal bones…
BOB [of Tekton Apologetics]: Tell me what happened to the body of Jesus.
STEVE concludes with:
“The evidence has shown that even though Roman authorities like Pilate might sometimes have left crucifixion victims hanging, they often allowed bodies to be buried. Such allowances, in fact, were all the more likely during a religious holiday, or when the crucifixion was not part of a mass operation to suppress an open and armed revolt, or when the request for the body came from a person who was cooperative with Rome. The evidence has further shown that the Jewish leaders who participated in the proceedings against Jesus had strong religious and cultural motives for seeking to bury him in shame. Such motives came not from any secret allegiance to Jesus, but from observance of traditional law and custom. Finally, the evidence has also shown that the early followers of Jesus described his burial in terms which were dishonorable. They dignified it as much as possible but did not deny its shame. On the basis of the evidence, then, the following scenario emerges as a likely course of events for the deposition of Jesusʼ body: late on the day of his death, one or more of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem — later personified by Christian tradition as Joseph of Arimathea — requested custody of the body for purposes of dishonorable burial. These leaders, having collaborated with the Romans in the condemnation of Jesus, had both the means and the motive to bury him in shame: means, in their access to Pilate, and motive, in Jewish law and custom. Pilate did not hesitate to grant dishonorable burial to one of their condemned criminals. Only the most rudimentary burial preparations were administered—the body was wrapped and taken directly to the tomb, without a funeral procession, eulogies, or the deposition of any personal effects. By sunset on the day of his death, the body of Jesus lay within a burial cave reserved for criminals condemned by Jewish courts. No one mourned.”
Furthermore, If Jesus Had Been Buried In Shame And His Tomb Location Was Unknown Then It Could Not Have Been Seen To Have Been Empty.
The shame of Jesusʼ burial is not only consistent with the best evidence, but can also help to account for an historical fact which has long been puzzling to historians of early Christianity: Why did the primitive church not venerate the tomb of Jesus? Joachim Jeremias, for one, thought it inconceivable (undenkbar) that the primitive community would have let the grave of Jesus sink into oblivion. Yet the earliest hints of Christian veneration of Jesusʼ tomb do not surface until the early fourth century CE. “It is a striking fact — and not at all unthinkable — that the tomb of Jesus was not venerated until it was no longer remembered as a place of shame.”[Christians didnʼt begin to venerate the cross either until long after Jesusʼ crucifixion. — E.T.B.]
BOB: Tell me what happened to the body of Jesus.
ED: If youʼll tell me what happens to bodies that die, like the millions of “missing corpses” of folks that have died in the ancient Near East since Jesusʼʼ day.
Of course all Bible believers know what happened to the body of Jesus, because the Bible tells them so. It says Jesusʼ body launched itself from the surface of the earth upward into the air, past the clouds — with some fish in Jesusʼ stomach (Luke). (I bet that fish was surprised to wind up in orbit.)
Ground Control To Jesus Christ: “We Have Liftoff”
The first chapter of the Book of Acts says that Jesusʼ ultimate moment of triumph, his big exit, his grand finale, when he bodily rose “into the clouds” to be seated at the right hand of God, was witnessed by only a handful of people, all of them, “disciples.”
The ascension story, as Luke tells it in the Book of Acts, assumes that Jesus rises in order to enter heavenʼs door in the sky to be enthroned at the right hand of God. But in a space age, rising from this earth into the sky does not result in achieving heaven. It might only result in achieving orbit. Luke did not comprehend the vastness of space. No one in his day did. He could not have imagined space travel. If Jesus ascended physically into the sky and rose as rapidly as the speed of light, he would not yet have reached the edges of our own galaxy. [And our galaxy is merely one of over 100 billion. — ED.]
- John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism
We know that anyone who wants to go to God and the precincts of the Blessed is taking a needless detour if he thinks this means he has to soar into the upper levels of the air. Surely Jesus would not have taken such a superfluous journey, nor would God have made him take it. Thus, one would have to assume something like a divine accommodation to the world-picture people had back then, and say: In order to convince the disciples of Jesusʼ return to the higher world, even though in fact that world was by no means to be sought in the upper atmosphere, God nevertheless staged the spectacle of Jesusʼ elevation. But this would be turning God into a sleight-of-hand artist.
- David Friedrich Strauss, Das Leben Jesu, 1837
It was the common belief among the Jews that the Messiah would transcend the greatest of the patriarchs and prophets; and if Enoch was translated, and Elijah went up in a fiery chariot, it was only natural that the Messiah should ascend to heaven.
- G. W. Foote, Bible Romances, No. 14, The Resurrection, 1880
The ascension of Jesus into cloudy concealment seems to have been modeled directly upon Josephusʼ [first century] telling of the story of the ascension of Moses before the forlorn eyes of his disciples.
- Robert M. Price, “Of Myth and Men: A Closer Look At the Originators of the Major Religions — What Did They Really Say and Do?” Free Inquiry, Winter 1999/2000
There were ascents into heaven made long before and quite apart from Jesus. The Roman historian Livy, described the ascension of Romulus, the founder of the city of Rome, who came to be venerated as a god: One day Romulus held an assembly of the people before the city walls to review the army. Suddenly a thunderstorm broke out, wrapping the king in a thick cloud. When the cloud lifted, Romulus was no longer on earth. He had gone up into heaven.
Stories of ascensions were told in antiquity about other famous men, for example, Heracles, Empedocles, Alexander the Great, and Apollonius of Tyana. Characteristically the scene is set with spectators and witnesses, before whose eyes the person in question disappears. Often he is borne aloft by a cloud or shrouded in darkness that takes him from the eyes of the people. Not infrequently the whole business takes place on a mountain or hill. (Gerhard Lohfink, Die Himmelfahrt Jesu)
From this standpoint, Jesusʼ Ascension was nothing out of the ordinary. Jesus too, disembarked from a mountain, the Mount of Olives, for heaven. The point is that from a mountain itʼs not quite as far to heaven.
- Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Putting Away Childish Things
Millions of Muslims believe Mohammed “ascended into the sky” riding a horse. Makes me wonder whether Mohammed caught up to Jesus and galloped past? Or, being the gracious prophet that he was, gave Jesus a lift?
The founding of Christianity was not only accompanied by miracles, but even today it cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one.
- David Hume
COTTY: For some reason it is no longer legitimate to add to the Bible, but obviously in biblical times, it was. Whoever gave legitimacy to the writers of the Bible is obviously no longer around.
The shakier the foundation of proof on which a Christian stands the more moral they imagine they are in maintaining their faith. The less proof that the story is true, the more moral they imagine themselves for believing it. Remember that Thomas was told he wasnʼt as blessed as folks who simply took the story for granted (without seeing it).
Would he forgive me for doubting him, because he made me as inquisitive and sceptical as I am? Would he smite me with a thunderbolt and cast me into the depths of hell for doubting him? Would he see me as a better soul because of my freethinking use of the gifts he gave me? (Our brains are as well adapted to do particle physics and philosophy as our legs are to take us to the moon. We have to make do with what we have.)
SHARON: Not only “add to it”, but the way some Bibles have been translated seem to reflect the religious doctrine/views of the translators (or so it appears in some versions)… which can be just as misleading.
ED TO BOB: I have a young-earth creationist (=YEC) friend, Paul Nelson, who hails from a long line of young-earth creationists, one of his relatives wrote a book advocating “flood geology” that I read back when I was a YEC myself (the book was called The Deluge Story in Stone). Today my friend remains a YEC and has a Ph.D. in philosophy of science and has co-authored a section of one of the Zondervan “Views“ series of books (his section defended YECism, but only in the most general way, noting that if you can believe in a bodily resurrection, then any literal interpretations of Biblical miracles, such as taking Genesis literally, is also possible). Paul is also a fellow of the Discovery Institute (The Discovery Institute is the “Intelligent Design” think tank that is trying to get I.D. taught in public schools) . I have known Paul for years and discussed many biologically related, and I.D. related topics with him. I have also tried to bring up the question of Flood geology with Paul, but he doesnʼt wish to discuss it. He remains beyond discussing or arguing Flood geology or specific argments concerning the earthʼs age. Says he doesnʼt know enough about the topics. Yet he remains invariably a YEC with as much faith apparently as he has in a literal bodily resurrection of Jesus and bodily ascension of Jesus.
Maybe thatʼs how peopleʼs minds work, mine, yours, everybodyʼs. Nobody can take all the information in, on all topics, so we all have to rely on, or settle for, experts whom we expect to take up the intellectual slack for us and defend positions for us. I have personally tried the broadest approach possible, having investigated matters on every topic possible, to some depth, science, history, theology. But even I havenʼt covered all the ground there is to cover.
You admit yourself that you choose to stick to discussing topics in which you feel you have amassed the most expertise. Well and good. But what does that say about each manʼs horizon of ignorance? And how can people be blamed eternally simply for relying on experts to fill in the gaps concerning things in which none of us has thorough expertise? In other words we each take a lot for granted, other peopleʼs words, other peopleʼs expertise. People in various cults also take for granted their leaderʼs expertise. People in minor sects and denominations take for granted the expertise of fellow believers who produce that sectʼs or that denominationʼs apologetics and theological books. People in major denominations likewise take for granted the expertise of fellow believers who write on a wide variety of subjects related to the beliefs of the major denomination to which they belong. Individuals in each cult, sect or denomination also take for granted that whatever good happens to them is a result of God (as they and their sect define God) doing it, and hence that also helps reinforce their particular array of beliefs, be they YEC Protestant, Mormon, or Church of Christ.
For that reason it remains inconceivable to me that God is going to judge people based on their religious “beliefs.” Because in the end thatʼs like judging people based on the horizons of their ignorance, and such horizons, as I pointed out, depend on many factors, including, which variety of religious beliefs you had been exposed to or not exposed to, which religious persons of good character you were exposed to or not exposed to, which experts filled in your horizons of ignorance, etc.
P.S., If there is one thing I have studied it is the subject of borrowed words and concepts related to the cosmos and creation, that you can literally trace if you compare the Bible with other ancient texts. The “four corners of the earth,” “the ends of the earth,” etc., are phrases/concepts found in ancient flat earth texts that preceded the writing of the Bibleʼs verses that contain the same phrases/concepts. Even the order of creation in Genesis echoes the Babylonian Enuma Elish. The foundation of the earth precedes the creation of the sun moon and stars made and set above it. The borrowing of mythical words and concepts related to creation accounts in the ancient Near East abound. The Egyptians had a firmament. So did the Babylonians. The waters of the deep (way below the surface of the earth), the entrance to the land of the dead lying at the ends of the earth, are other shared phrases/concepts. The list goes on. Compiling such parallels was something I did prior to leaving my YEC beliefs behind. I authored a manuscript with footnotes and pictures of ancient iconography and ancient phrases from creation texts, comparing Genesis with them. The ancient agreed in the creative power of the verbal commands of their gods. They agreed that the basic elements of creation were “wind, water, light/fire, earth.” They agreed they everything had been created as it appeared and that the earth appeared flat. Questions asked to children round the world today showed that they continue to harbor the same concepts the ancients did, viewing the earth as flat.
Moreover, the borrowings do not end with the creation accounts. Borrowings from ancient wisdom literature found in the book of Proverbs have also been documented.
As well as the well documented practice of exaggerations regarding battle victories, or the numbers of enemy slain, or sizes of armies, or amount of booty captured, such exaggerations being rife at that time.
It is likewise true that the Bible contains evidence of differences of opinion among its writers, concerning matters like whether everyone goes down to Sheol after they have died. Sheol appears to have been the old majority opinion that existed right up to the days of the Sadducees, who were the old conservatives of their day. Or the spats between the prophets and the priests on the origins of all of those sacrificial laws, and the necessity or non-necessity of keeping them, and what God “really wants.” Or the opinion held in the Psalms that God will rescue people in this life and bless people in this life who serve him, compared with plenty of examples to the contrary, of good people who served God in this life, like Job, and yet suffered horribly.
Habermas-Babinski Resurrection Debate
Dr. Gary Habermas is a Professor of Philosophy and Apologetics at Liberty University, and also the author of Did Jesus Rise from the Dead (a book that arose from a debate Dr. Habermas had with the famed British philosopher Antony Flew).
Edward T. Babinski is the editor of Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists.
In 1989 Mr. Babinski was editing Theistic Evolutionistsʼ Forum, a self-published newsletter, and wrote Dr. Habermas asking if he would respond to a number of skeptical questions concerning the “raising of the many” story in the Gospel of Matthew. Habermas graciously responded, and they exchanged several letters on the subject of the resurrection of Jesus. The discussion was serious, respectful, even lightly humorous at times. Both parties enjoyed the discussion so much that Habermas (with Babinskiʼs permission) submitted the letters for publication to a Christian publisher, though that project never came to fruition. The discussion consisted of a series of three exchanges followed by a last letter sent to Habermas by Babinski in which a broader more complete summation of skeptical questions were laid out. Friends who read the letters, both evangelicals and skeptics, agreed that Babinskiʼs summation (which is reproduced below) featured several “knotty” questions. Habermas unfortunately did not have time to pursue a reply, though after receiving Babinskiʼs summation he did seek to have the debate published and lengthened, which would have supplied both parties with the impetus to proceed further.
Below is the final letter in the debate, composed by Mr. Babinski (with some editing and additional verses added).
Best, Ed Babinski
In answer to your March 21st letter. You wish to center on the “specific situation” of Jesusʼs resurrection: Were the appearance accounts “objective,” were the appearances “literal?” I, on the other hand, do not see any easy way to separate “general notions of mythology or superstition among first century people” (which you grant “in general”) from the “specific situation” of Jesusʼs resurrection.
I admit that “appearances” are “attested in the earliest literature.” But, it is “literature” whose “objectivity” in recording events remains in dispute. (For instance, how “objective” are we to take Paulʼs claim the he was taken up to the “third heaven?” And what exactly did Paul see in that case?)
I asserted that the list of appearances Paul recounts were appearances to others, not to Paul, and therefore Paulʼs list was “second-hand” evidence. You agreed “that list is not Paulʼs own but that he receive it from others.” So, donʼt we agree in this case?
I agree that “we have to take any writing at face value and try to ascertain what it is saying.” That is the beginning of both fundamentalist and historical critical scholarship. I do not agree that “face value” is where we should both begin and end our search for the “grounds” of what the author wrote.
I noticed your reliance upon phrases such as, “modern scholarship is virtually unanimous,” “on this score scholarship is united,” “almost all scholars are agreed,“ and finally, “this seems to be the conclusion of most modern scholars, even critical ones.” I take exception to such a method of argument. A manʼs opinions are not logically strengthened by the number of men who agree with him (unless his logic functions like that of an evangelist).
I also disagree with your assessment of scholarly opinion. Consider the worldʼs oldest, most prestigious institutions of higher learning, all founded on the notion of “Biblical infallibility,” yet after continually drawing the brightest scholars and students, they eventually rejected inerrancy and the fundamentalist apologetical stance for an historical-critical approach. Sure, Evangelical scholars try to sum historical-critical research and results to add up to their way of thinking, because the H-C approach by itself is not conducive to fundamentalist faith, but to a more open acknowledgement of individual opinions and a spectrum of ideas, not signed statements of faith, nor “majority opinion.” In stating, “This seems to be the conclusion of most modern scholars, even critical ones,” your “seems” carries less weight than you imagine, especially among “critical” scholars.
Concerning Jesusʼs appearances you replied that “we have eyewitness reports. I think this is the case in both the gospels and in Paul.” I think differently.
Paul does not give a single detail as to what anyoneʼs eyes “witnessed,” not even himself (except for Lukeʼs account of what Paul saw, which amounts to no more than a bright light and a voice — which seems to be what most religions are based on). How does such evidence constitute “eyewitness reports?”
As for the Gospels, they were written at a later date than Paulʼs “witness.” And the Gospels raise questions of their own:
1) Approximately 91% of Mark is paralleled with only minor variations in Luke and/or Matthew. The same thing can be said of about 50% of Matthew and about 41% of Luke. Of these parallels, many of them agree in exact order and wording. This has lead to the elucidation of the “synoptic problem.” How are we to explain the obvious similarities in wording that we find in these passages, especially since Jesus spoke and taught primarily in Aramaic, and these agreements in exact wording are in Greek? A related problem is the question of why, when John reports a similar incident or saying in the life of Jesus, there is little or no exactness present in the wording, i.e., compared with the three synoptic Gospels.
Such data suggest literary links between the three synoptic gospels, i.e., they do not resemble each other because they are three separate “eyewitness” reports of what Jesus said and did, but because they were based upon shared written documents, i.e., branches of the same literary tree, individually “ornamented” (revised/redacted). One of the most prevalent theories so far is that Mark was one such primary document. The other primary document contained the parallels shared by Matthew and Luke but not shared by Mark, this second document being known as “Q” (the first letter of the German word for “source” — I am adding these explanations for the benefit of our readers, not for you, as I know you are familiar with all of this).
In “Q” the message of Jesusʼs death and resurrection was not central. While the other major literary source, Mark, ends merely with the empty tomb, and no appearances, only a “young man” who tells the women, “He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him.” No “eyewitness” data here, like Paul, the other earliest source of evidence.
A quick sidelight here on the “young man in a long white garment” sitting in Jesusʼs empty tomb in the Gospel of Mark. There is no mention of the “young man” being an “angel.” In fact Mark mentions a “young man” (same Greek phrase) at Jesusʼs arrest. Again, attention was paid to what the “young man” was wearing, which was only a “linen cloth” when Jesus was arrested. Someone tried to grab the “young man” who “fled“ away “naked,” leaving behind the linen cloth. (Mark 14: 50-52) So the “young man in a long white garment” sitting in Jesusʼs empty tomb on Sunday morning could be the same “young man” at Jesusʼs arrest. Mark could be trying to impress the reader with the faith of an anonymous “young man” who was the last to leave Jesus when he was arrested (who had to flee away naked), and also the first to arrive at the empty tomb, clothed in a “long white garment” covering his previously naked body. The “young man” could remain unidentified in both cases to draw readers into the tale of Jesusʼs resurrection, to allow them to envision themselves as that young man, and imagine how he went from being naked to clothed in a long white garment - the last to leave Jesus on the night of his betrayal and the first to arrive at Jesusʼs empty tomb full of faith. So by using the phrase, “young man” twice at such crucial times in that Gospel, the author may have been trying to get his readers to identify with that human figure and his faith. But sometime between the writing of Markʼs Gospel and the later three (Matthew, Luke and Johnʼs Gospels) Markʼs description of a “young man” was dropped in favor of purely “angelic” figures. The other Gospels also failed to mention Markʼs story about the “young man” who “fled naked at Jesusʼs arrest.” Instead, at the tomb they have “two men in shining garments…a vision of angels” (Luke 24:4 & 23), or “the angel of the Lord who descended from heaven; his countenance like lightening, and his raiment white as snow” (Matthew), or “two angels in white” (John).
Neither do comparisons between the Gospels, and the questions they raise, end there. In Mark, the words spoken at the tomb are changed from “He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him” to “Remember how he spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day raise again.” Luke has “redacted” (revised) Mark. Neither is the Lukan redaction difficult to spot. “Galilee” was changed from a place to go to see Jesus (in Mark), to the place where Jesus gave his discourse about the Son of Man being raised (in Luke). But why should it be important where Jesus merely spoke about the resurrection? Didnʼt Jesus speak about the resurrection not just in Galilee, but also in Judea? The Markan announcement is more to the point: “He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him.” But Luke needed the disciples to remain in Jerusalem to make his Jerusalem appearance stories make sense. So Luke redacted the message at the tomb, otherwise the disciples would have been depicted as running off to Galilee (fifty miles from Jerusalem) to see Jesus who had gone on there before them, as Mark (and Matthew) say.
The Jerusalem appearance stories in Luke include seeing Jesus in Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem; then in Jerusalem, where the disciples are gathered; and then on a mountain in Bethany (again not very far from Jerusalem), where Jesus “parted from them.” In Acts, Luke added that Jesus told his disciples “not to leave Jerusalem.” and that Jesus ascended from mount Olivet, “near Jerusalem, a Sabbathʼs day journey away.”
The difference between Mark and Luke is clear. The earliest known manuscripts of Mark contain no appearance accounts, and say Jesus went on before them to Galilee for that was where they would see him. But Luke contains stories of appearances solely around and in Jerusalem. Which is true? This is an honest question based on a “face value” reading of the Gospels.
Even Robert H. Stein, an Evangelical Christian professor at Bethel Theological Seminary, has examined arguments both for and against Markʼs literary priority, and concluded in favor of it in his book The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction (Baker, 1987). But, such a priority affects how “literally” you view the resurrection stories in later Gospels, like Luke and John. Need I add that among the synoptics, Matthew and Luke diverge most from each other exactly at those points where they could not follow Mark, namely, in their accounts of Jesusʼs infancy and resurrection. (Mark lacks an infancy narrative and the earliest copies of Mark end simply with an empty tomb and a promise of a sighting in Galilee, so Mark supplies no details about Jesusʼs resurrection appearances.)
2) Further comparisons raise further questions. Both Matthean and Markan stories agree in having the “young man” (Mark) or “angel” (Matthew) announce at the tomb, “He is going before you into Galilee, there you will see him.” However in Mark the women “flee from the tomb, and say nothing to anyone” out of “fear,” while in Matthew the women depart quickly “to report” what the angel told them to the disciples. In Matthew the women even meet Jesus on the way! Jesus says, “Do not be afraid!” Matthew is not only redacting but also strengthening Markʼs story. Neither is such a process of redacting and strengthening difficult to spot when other stories in Mark and Matthew are compared. For instance after Jesus walks on the water in Mark 6:51-52 the disciples “were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” However when Jesus walks on the water in Matthew 14:33, “They worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” Matthew even relates similar events to Mark but doubles the number of lepers healed (one becomes two), blind men healed (one becomes two), demon-possessed men exorcised (one becomes two), even the number of animals that Jesus rode into Jerusalem (one becomes two). The Matthean strengthening process at work in the resurrection story is also not difficult to spot. Matthew adds guards at the tomb, and the raising of many saints. And it is not difficult to spot the further redaction that was made to justify the “guards at the tomb” story. Mark mentions no guards, and the women go to the tomb “to anoint” Jesusʼs body. But in Matthew where “guards” are assumed, and contact with the body would not be foreseen as possible, the women no longer go to anoint Jesus, but merely to “look at the grave.”
Matthew, like Mark, agrees that the disciples saw Jesus in Galilee. Though the Gospel of Matthew adds details about two resurrection appearances, one to the women leaving the tomb, and one on a mountain in Galilee (not Mt. Olivet in Judea, as in Luke)., they are relatively brief, and only serve to illustrate later Christian dogmas about Jesusʼs authority, baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, etc.
3) Comparing Mark with both Matthew and Luke we see additional redactions. Luke agrees with Matthew that the women immediately reported what an “angel(s)” told them (contra Mark which stated “they told no one”). Luke omits Jesusʼs appearances to the women (in Matthew) on the way back to the disciples. However, some manuscripts of Luke add that Peter ran to the tomb to verify the womanʼs tale of its emptiness. Luke adds more appearances, Matthew listing only two. Luke adds the road to Emmaus appearance, the appearance to the eleven during which Jesus ate a piece of fish and honeycomb to convince them he was not a spirit, but had flesh and bones, “And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them.” (Luke 24) (Imagine parading through Jerusalem “led” by a resurrected Jesus! Makes you wonder whether Jesus led them via a path that took them past Pilateʼs, Herodʼs, or the chief priestʼs house. Surely, if there was a time for palms being flung in his path, and Hosannas, this was it). And Luke adds an appearance to Simon alone(though no description is given of it).
4) By the time we get to the fourth and last Gospel, John, we find yet more appearances. In that Gospel we have Mary Magdalene seeing Jesus; Peter and a second disciple verifying the tombʼs emptiness; Jesus appearing in Jerusalem to all the disciples but Thomas; Jesus returning to convince Thomas; “many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;” Jesus manifesting himself again, at the sea of Galilee.
It is part of a theo-logical progression it would seem from Mark-Matthew-Luke-John to the many additional Gospel stories and Acts of the Apostles that continued to be composed by Christians afterwards — or, as the fourth and last Gospel states, “There are many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” Thatʼs a lot of books for a ministry that lasted only a few years. All four Gospels total no more than about 100 pages (in my NASB), which makes them skimpy collections of what Jesus “did” by the reckoning of that above verse in John. Two of them even repeat about 91% of what appears in one Gospel, Mark! “The world could not contain all the books”? That is the language of faith speaking, not reason. It sounds to me like the author is hinting at the existence of many apocryphal stories circulating among Christian in his day. He is certainly leaving the door open for such stories to grow even more widespread.
Speaking of apocryphal stories, there is evidence that the Gospels themselves contain them. There is the added ending to Mark (16:9-20). We both agree that “almost no scholars would argue for the authority of those verses. I donʼt think we should use the passage in Mark when that text is rejected by most scholars. (The problem here is that most believe that those last twelve verses are a later addition to the manuscript)” [from your March 21st letter]. Yet these “additions” are of resurrection appearances.
Or take Johnʼs story of the woman caught in the act of adultery. It first appears in some Old Latin New Testament manuscripts written in the fifth century or later, and in Codex D (5th or 6th c.), but not earlier.
Another addition is Luke 22:43-44, the story of an angel from heaven appearing and strengthening Jesus in Gethsemane, while Jesus in agony sweat drops of blood. This story is not in the 3rd cent. Papyrus P75, nor in Codex B, written in the middle of the fourth century. It appeared later.
How can the Gospels be considered “eyewitness” testimony knowing such additions took place, the most embarrassing one being the addition in Mark of a resurrection appearance? There are in fact three different endings to Mark that feature brief resurrection appearances reminiscent of those at the end of Matthew. However none of those alternative endings are found in the earliest known manuscripts of Mark, only in later ones. It would seem that Markʼs original ending, which featured merely an empty tomb and women “telling no one,” was not an ending that early Christians considered satisfactory. Perhaps that also explains the need for additional Gospels and their redactions and “enhancements?”
Another sidelight on the fourth and last Gospel concerns the story it alone contains of the “raising of Lazarus.” In your Dec. 21st letter you proposed that “we have good reason to believe that these [resurrected] individuals [like Lazarus and others in the Gospels] appeared in their natural bodies.” I admit to being ignorant of “good” reasons to that effect.
Concerning the raising of those other than Lazarus, the Gospel stories are few and unspectacular. For instance in Mark (which I take to be the earliest source) the synagogue rulerʼs daughter was “at the point of death,” or in Matthew “had just died” when Jesus healed/raised her. Such things seem possible. In one afterlife book (Beyond the Light, I think), I read about a man who had been declared dead in the hospital, then a little while later he woke up alone on a stretcher in the hallway. According to another book, Dannion Brinkley was struck by lightning, declared dead, but then came back to life. But none of those people had been dead for long. The Lazarus story involves someone dead for “four days,” whose body “stinketh.” What “good reason” do we have to believe that story?
Letʼs look at the story of Lazarus in depth also, beginning with our knowledge of another story in John, the story of Lazarusʼs alleged sisters, “Mary and Martha,” and how “Mary sat at Jesusʼs feet,” “anointed them” with perfume, and “wiped them with her hair” in the town of “Bethany.” (John 12) Stories similar to that one are found in the earlier three Gospels, but with a few differences:
Mark 14:3 — An unnamed woman anointed Jesusʼs head in Bethany at the house of Simon the Leper.
Luke 7:37-38 — An unnamed sinner anointed Jesusʼs feet and wiped them with her hair in Nain at the house of a Pharisee.
Luke 10:38-39 — Mary, the sister of Martha, listened at Jesusʼs feet in an unnamed town at her house.
Now consider this: Did you ever get confused about similar events like those listed above? Say, in a Sunday School discussion, you mixed up the name of the town where the woman anointed Jesusʼs “head” with the name of the town where the woman anointed Jesusʼs “feet.” Was it Nain or Bethany? Or you confused the woman who “listened” at Jesusʼs feet with the woman who “anointed” Jesusʼs feet? The unnamed sinner lady in Nain, became, until you looked it up, Mary, sister of Martha? Well, something like that appears to have happened in the minds of Christians before the Gospel of John was composed, the last written of the four Gospels. By that time, similar persons and events from the earlier Gospels had become amalgamated in peopleʼs minds. In John 12:3, Mary, the woman who simply “listened” at Jesusʼs feet is now also anointing them and wiping them with her hair. Thus the unnamed woman of the town of Nain became amalgamated in peopleʼs minds with “Mary, Marthaʼs sister.” And the unnamed town where Mary lived became amalgamated with the town where the woman who anointed Jesusʼs “head” lived, “Bethany.” And Mary used expensive “spikenard ointment” on them, as the lady in Mark (and possibly Luke) did. Only this time is it not at Simon the Leperʼs house, nor at the house of a Pharisee, but at “Maryʼs house.”
What does the above discussion have to do with the “resurrection of Lazarus” story? Well, it shows how the Gospel of John amalgamates things from earlier Gospels. And only the Gospel of John depicts Lazarus as a real person. Luke mentions a real Mary and Martha, but says nothing about them having a brother, nor in which town they lived. So the author(s) of the Gospel of John appear to have amalgamated Mary and Martha, the town of Bethany, and the “Lazarus” from a parable in the Gospel of Luke — a parable in which a poor beggar named “Lazarus” dies and goes to “Abrahamʼs bosom,” while a rich man suffering in nearby “Hades” sees Lazarus and pleads with Abraham to “send Lazarus to my Fatherʼs house, to warn my brothers so they may repent [and avoid going to Hades],” to which the answer was, “neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”
Think about it a “Lazarus” who dies and someone who hopes Lazarus will be “raised from the dead” to “persuade others” “to repent.” But such persuasion is predicted not to work. Where does that appear outside of Luke?
Why in John. Johnʼs “Lazarus” is now a concrete person, the “brother” of Mary and Martha from Luke. (Neither is this Lazarus a poor “beggar,” since heʼs rich enough to have his own tomb and live in a house with his “sisters.”) He is “raised from the dead” — a parable come true. And, as predicted in the parable, such a miracle fails to persuade those who refuse to listen to Moses and the prophets, namely the Pharisees: “Many therefore of the Jews, who had come to Mary and beheld what He had done, believed in Him. But some of them went away to the Pharisees, and told them the things which Jesus had done.” The Pharisees refuse to repent, and even decide, after hearing of this great miracle, to seize Jesus and have him executed. What a coincidence! Two “Lazaruses,” one in Luke and one in John, both die, both illustrate that “even though he be raised from the dead, they will not be persuaded,” in fact, “Lazarusʼs resurrection” in the Gospel of John elicits even a stronger negative response!
Not surprisingly, when you add a whole new miracle found in none of the other Gospels, and make it the focal point for the Phariseesʼ decision to have Jesus seized and executed, you have to do something with the fact that all three of the earlier Gospels agreed that it was Jesusʼs overturning of the tables in the Temple that made the Pharisees decide to have Jesus crucified. So the author(s) of John decided to remove the table-turning episode from the end of Jesusʼs ministry and move it to the beginning of Jesusʼs ministry. All so that the Pharisees would decide to have Jesus seized and killed due to the unsettling nature of the stunning resurrection miracle that was added to the last Gospel.
The question remains, did the “raising of Lazarus” actually take place or might the story have been a later invention, based on an amalgamation of information and names found in earlier Gospels? The moving of Jesusʼs “table-turning” episode from the end of the earlier Gospels to the beginning of the last written Gospel adds to the force of such a question, since the author(s) of John made it appear quite obvious that it was now necessary to make room at the end of their Gospel to display the totally new miracle and make it the new reason why the Pharisees decided to seize and crucify Jesus.
And there is also the even wider question raised by the fact that the Gospel of John concentrates on a handful of major miracles in Jesusʼs ministry, the Lazarus miracle being used to illustrate that Jesus was “the resurrection and the life.” The author(s) have Jesus speak those very words, along with a lot of “I ams,” one after each major miracle. How unlike the Jesus who is portrayed in the earlier three Gospels, who asked his disciples not to tell anyone he was the Messiah, and who did not speak in such an “I am” manner even after healing people, performing exorcisms, or raising the synagogue rulerʼs daughter who was “at the point of death” (in Markʼs version) or who had “just died” (per Matthewʼs version).
The Gospel of John is a theological creation from its opening verses of Greek philosophy which constitute the author(s)ʼ interpretation of Jesus (“In the beginning was the Word.”) — to Jesusʼs long-winded prayer in the garden, allegedly spoken on the eve of his death. Keeping in mind that the latter prayer was uttered only once in Jesusʼs life, and while the apostles were all asleep, or at least falling in and out of sleep, it seems quite a feat to be able to write down all twenty-six verses of it (chapter 17). (The Gospel of John also has Jesus speaking in the same semi-gnostic language as John the Baptist and the author of the prologue to that Gospel.) And the Fourth Gospel ends by stating that it was written “that ye may believe.” How objective could such a work be?
Oh, and concerning the parable in Luke that may have been the inspiration for the “Lazarus story” that later grew and found its way into the Fourth Gospel, not even the Lukan parable may have been original. Stories about a rich and poor man both dying, and the rich man getting sent some place bad and the poor man getting sent some place good, have been found in both ancient Egypt and ancient Judaism. Itʼs a typical “reversal of fortune” parable. [Richard Bauckham, “The Rich Man and Lazarus: The Parable and the Parallels,” New Testament Studies, Vol. 37, 1991, pp. 225-246]
Those are some of the reasons I doubt the N.T. literature, written by and for believers, containing second-hand stories of resurrection appearances that appear, even by a “face value” comparison of all the Gospels, to have grown in the telling.
A further important point. Regardless of how “real” a person views the “appearances” I do not believe that the evidence substantiates a bodily resurrection. I base my opinion on the reasons given in my letters, notably, on the earliest stories including those in 1 Cor., and the “concretization” process that may be traced in the Gospels, from Mark to John. Even you admitted in your Dec. 21st letter that the “‘middle ground’ position [of a ‘less than physical resurrection’] is very popular in critical circles at this present time, perhaps even the predominant view.”
I remain a little to the left of middle. I suggest that these “middle ground” scholars maintain such a view of less-than-physical yet “real” appearances because they are Christians or somewhat conservative Jews, and their faith has to have something “real“ to hold onto.
As I see it, for the faithful, all it takes is a possibility (no matter how remote) that their interpretation might be right, for them to believe it is. A “maybe” is as good as a “certainty,” or increases the faith they already possess. For the non-faithful, a possibility is just that, a maybe is as good as a maybe, an “appearance” remains an “appearance,” nothing more, nothing less: Protestants see Jesus and angels but seldom Mary because the awe/respect that Catholics pay Mary is denigrated by Protestants. Catholics see Jesus and Mary. Native Americans experience illuminating visions of animal spirits. Hindus may be visited by personae from their vast pantheon, while Buddhists may experience the compassionate “amida Buddha” as they pray, “Save me, amida Buddha.” A different school of Buddhists even experiences “born again” like experiences of hellish fears followed by the relief of salvation (as discussed in Conrad Hyersʼs book, One-Born, Twice-Born Zen). New Agers see chakra colors and UFOs. A Gallup poll revealed that Southerners hear Godʼs voice much more often than Northerners. Just whose voice are these people hearing and does it sound Southern to them? (Protestants stress hearing Godʼs voice more and the value of “the Word,” while Catholics stress seeing God more, which may explain the greater number of visions they experience in general.) What about J. B. Phillipsʼs story that C. S. Lewis “appeared” to him after Lewis had died? (Cannon Phillips had corresponded with Lewis “a fair amount” before Lewis died, and only saw him in the flesh once before. When Phillips mentioned that appearance to a certain saintly Bishop, the Bishopʼs reply was, “My dear J., this sort of thing is happening all the time.”) My friend, Will Bagley, told me that in a very realistic dream, Rajneesh, the Hindu guru, once appeared to Will at the foot of his bed with a brief message. My former fiancé told me about how a Catholic aunt of hers once saw Jesus before going to bed one night. (She told Jesus she was tired, and went to bed!) Dr. Robert Price knew a woman who ran a religious bookstore who claimed that Jesus appeared to her often. (Ask him about that story sometime.) My step-fatherʼs great aunt was very ill and staying with me and my Mom and Step-Dad when she seemed to be hearing voices and seeing lights before she passed away. I have also read stories on the web of Near Death Experiences as told by people in Thailand who claimed to have seen some deities from their Buddhist religious backgrounds, including a talking turtle.
Statistically, Near Death Experiences do not often involve religious figures, and of those that involve figures of any kind they are usually compassionate beings of light who leave people of all religions (or even no religion) with the feeling that love is whatʼs important and death isnʼt as scary as they once thought it was. There are some nightmarish NDEs as well, but they are a distinct minority. And in fact I know of one that started out hellish but the person was saved by a compassionate “being of light.” (Howard Storm was the fellowʼs name who had that last mentioned NDE, and he was transformed by it from a self avowed egotist and chair of a university art department to becoming a universalistic type of Christian minister.)
After reading the above it should become clear that a personʼs life and culture play a role in how things “appear” to them. Also, if there is “reality” involved in such appearances, it appears to be a universal reality, not a solely Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist one.
The difference between my approach and that of, say, a Christian apologist, is that I am not trying to say Christianity is “it,” and then when faced with a difficulty in proving my apologetics superior, retreat into mystery and faith. My ideas originate in mystery, doubt, etc. I endorse Protagorasʼs (and Robert Anton Wilsonʼs) approach: During our brief spans of life, limited to our particular language and culture and whatever scientific/historical/philosophical knowledge each of us has time to pursue, we each gain only a limited understanding of “God” and other immense questions. Heck, we havenʼt even crawled off the surface of the cradle planet.
Concerning the Bible, it raises “face value” questions it does not answer. So “fundamentalistic” Christians take the “face value” method only so far, except when they run into knotty questions. Then they opt for ad hoc explanations of their own making to deliver themselves from historical-critical questions and more open-ended explanations. So, in my opinion, even the most rigid fundamentalists are as “humanistic” in their boundless faith in their own ad hoc subsidiary explanations, as their most uncompromising critics.
A point I neglected to cover, above, concerning the account of the empty tomb — you “just do not think it is the case that the writers had to simply use women because there was no other alternative.” My reply is to study the Gospels. In Mark, ostensibly the earliest, the story goes that the disciples “all left him and fled” in the garden. A young man following Jesusʼs captors was seized and escaped naked. Peter is afraid to admit to knowing Jesus. While at Jesusʼs crucifixion, only women are mentioned, “And there were also women looking on from afar.” “And Mary Magdelene, and Mary the mother of Joses were looking on where Jesus was laid.” Any subsequent empty tomb story would therefore be limited to women, since we are told in the earliest Gospel that the men fled.
In Matthew, “all the disciples left him and fled,” adding at the crucifixion that “many women were looking on from a distance.” And when Joseph sealed Jesusʼs grave, “Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the grave.” Only women again.
Luke is the first to omit that the disciples all fled at Jesusʼs arrest. But he does note that it was “the women [who] followed after, and saw the tomb and how His body was laid,” i.e., women again, who saw where Jesus was buried. [Luke 24:12 about “Peter running to the tomb” is a later insertion that does not appear in the earliest manuscripts.]
John, the last Gospel written, bursts this mold open. The women are no longer watching the crucifixion “at a distance” as in Mark and Matthew, but “they were standing by the cross of Jesus,” and now there is also at least one man with them. This is a necessary redaction, since John has two men race each other to the tomb once Mary Magdalene tells the disciples it is empty, and they couldnʼt run there unless they knew where it was, and they couldnʼt know unless they had attended the crucifixion, which John says they did.
I would say the earliest version of the empty tomb story had to employ women (see Mark above about the men “all” having “fled”). And the earliest story about the women “not telling anyone” (in Mark) explains the relatively late appearance of the legend of the empty tomb, i.e., “no one” was “told,” nor heard, about an empty tomb until later. The empty tomb legend only arose after various “appearance” stories, like those related by Paul (who does not mention an “empty tomb”) had already spread.
Numerous theologians (See for instance, The Anglican Archbishop of Perth, Peter Carnelyʼs, The Structure of Resurrection Belief; or Thomas Sheehanʼs The First Coming) have suggested on the basis of a comparative study of the Gospels that the earliest stories of Jesusʼs resurrection and subsequent “appearance(s)” probably arose in Galilee after Jesusʼs disciples fled there. According to the earliest Gospel, Galilee was where the risen Jesus “went” and where they would “see” him. That was where “the eleven” pondered for weeks their leaderʼs tragic fate and came to believe that matters would not, must not, could not end simply with Jesusʼs death. We have no records of what the apostles when through in Galilee, but it is no secret that small groups can exert enormous influence over their individual members, shaping perceptions, including conformity, and so forth. All the more so when the groups in question are fiercely partisan, and in the grip of some transcendent passion. And a passion for resurrection was not uncommon to that time and place, neither was a passion for a soon coming resurrection of all the dead in final apocalyptic judgment. Perhaps a “visionary experience” or very real “dream(s)” that he had appeared to them to continue his movement, mission, passion, to preach the soon coming kingdom of God, of which his resurrection was the first-fruits.
The historical order of accretion of what (the Jewish theologian) Pinchas Lapide has called a “dense wreath of resurrection legends“ would then be:
Claims of “appearances,” no details — Paul
Claims of “appearances” (“You shall see him in Galilee”), augmented by the claim of an “empty tomb,” but still no details as to any of those appearances, since the earliest Markan manuscripts end with merely the promise of an appearance in Galilee. And no appearances mentioned in Jerusalem. — Mark
Two relatively brief “appearance” stories with a few sparse details and words of the risen Jesus (to go with the new empty tomb legend), one near the tomb, and the second in Galilee — Matthew
More appearance stories, longer, more detailed, that all take place in and around Jerusalem (for which the angelʼs message at the tomb had to be changed), including a tendency to “concretize” Jesus more (he eats some fish and honeycomb to convince them he is not a “spirit,” and even takes them on a little walk to Bethany). — Luke
[Note: The long ending to Mark (16:9-20) was probably composed sometimes between 3) & 4) ]
Yet more appearance stories in Jerusalem and also some in Galilee, including Jesus appearing to ten of the apostles, then appearing to them all again with Thomas present, so he could be offered a chance to “put” his “hand” in “Jesusʼs side;” Jesus fixing [and eating?] food with the disciples [in both Jerusalem and Galilee respectively]; and the announcement, “…there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written, every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written,” a supposition thay may have been based on the spread of further Jesus stories among the faithful. (I am not judging the nature of such stories, only the fact that they seem to keep growing from Mark to John and beyond.) — John
Among those “many other things which Jesus did,” some of which can no doubt be found in the bevy of other Gospels and Acts that believers continued to write, most of which we know only by brief mentions in other Christian works. One of which (The Gospel of Nicodemus) expanded on the incident in Matthew of “the raising of the many” (identifying them as “Adam and Eve” and some other Hebrew prophets). Others told of miracles Jesus performed in his infancy and youth. And one of which (the Gospel of Peter) told of Jesus actually being seen stepping out of his opened tomb (and followed by a talking cross).
A joke I recently heard maybe add a bit of lightness to this otherwise top heavy exchange:
After serving his followers for decades, the revered rabbi of an orthodox congregation died. His faithful flock, wailing and crying, beseeched God to grant them a glimpse of their beloved rabbi now that he had gone to meet his reward. God was moved by their prayers and granted them their request. The congregation looked up at the vision before them, and there was their beloved rabbi, sitting in heaven with a beautiful blonde on his lap.
“Rebbe, rebbe,” they cried. “How could you, the most holy man we know, after a lifetime of exemplary behavior, end up with a buxom blonde as your reward?”
“My good people,” replied the rabbi, peering down. “This woman is not my reward. Iʼm her punishment.”
Best, EdLabels:ascension, gospel of jesus christ, gospels, historicity of jesus, new testament
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