Friday, June 14, 2013

Authentic Resurrection Stories?

My church had its final Bible study last night on John's Gospel: Wisdom from Ephesus, with Michael Card.   In this post, I'll use as my starting-point one of the questions in our workbook.  After citing John 20:1-9, the workbook asks:

"How does the reaction of Peter and John to Mary Magdalene's words demonstrate, contrary to come skeptics' claims, that Jesus' disciples had no part in secretly removing His body from the tomb?"
The answer that people in the group gave was that the disciples were surprised that the tomb in which Jesus had been placed was empty, that that Jesus' clothes and the napkin that covered his head were neatly arranged in the tomb.  They couldn't have removed Jesus' body if they were later surprised to find the tomb empty, right?

I think back to this Jesus and Mo comic strip, in which Jesus and Moe are debating Jesus' resurrection.  Jesus keeps appealing to the empty tomb in an attempt to convince Mo that the resurrection story actually happened, and Mo said that was a no-no: "The so-called empty tomb is part of the resurrection story.  It's not valid evidence.  That's like saying the Yellow Brick Road is evidence for the existence of the Wizard of Oz."  Consequently, can we appeal to elements of the resurrection story in seeking to refute people who are skeptical about that very story?

But there are people who believe that the resurrection stories are authentic and reflect eyewitness testimony.  I think back to a post by Messianic Rabbi Derek Leman, in which Derek said that we see in the Gospel stories "a strange perplexity and fear which underlies" them as well as "strong signs of the accounts going back to eyewitnesses."  Derek states:

"The Gospel accounts are raw. How do we explain their features?...Whereas in the cross narratives we had Bible verses inserted into the telling, marking the events of his death as filling a pattern from the Hebrew Bible, there are none here. The message of afterlife hope is absent here. Instead we get fear and disbelief. Is this because by the time Luke was written the community still did not understand what Yeshua’s raising had to do with our own hope? Not at all. This feature requires explaining...And, as we will see in the next part of the account [in Luke 24], there were unusual qualities about Yeshua’s raised body."

Drawing from N.T. Wright and Richard Bauckham, Derek discusses various reasons that he believes that Luke 24 reflects eyewitness testimony: women in the narrative being the first witnesses to the empty tomb in a culture that did not particularly value women's testimony, the significance of names in the narrative, etc.  But what stands out to me is Derek's argument that the narrative about Jesus' resurrection is raw: it reflects fear, bafflement, and an initial lack of understanding of what God was doing at the time.  For Derek, this is one indication that the resurrection story was early and authentic: it conveyed what the disciples felt when Jesus rose from the dead.

But couldn't that have been made-up?  Couldn't a devout writer composing a resurrection story have chosen to depict the disciples and others as baffled at Jesus' resurrection, for a literary reason?  Couldn't this writer have been seeking to exalt God and Christ by presenting them as baffling the disciples with a glorious event?

While there are scholars who believe that the resurrection stories are authentic and reflect eyewitness testimony, not everyone agrees.  Last night, I read this Huffington Post article by Bishop John Shelby Spong, in which Spong does not defend his claims that a lot of the Gospel of John is contrived, but he refers to a book that he wrote that supposedly does so. 

The religious part of me goes with Derek's view.  The part of me that recoils from Christian apologetics tends to go with the view of the "Jesus and Mo" comic strip and Bishop Spong.  I will say that, when I read some of the resurrection narratives, there does appear to be a personal touch in them.  I liked what my pastor said last night: that Jesus in John's Gospel was showing his disciples that he was alive by neatly arranging his clothes and his napkin before leaving the tomb.  When Peter and John went to the empty tomb to check it out, they could conclude that Jesus was alive, even if they did not yet understand the theological or Scriptural context of that, for a grave robber or someone simply moving the body would either take the body with the clothes on it, or (less likely) would remove the clothes and toss them to the side (see here).  But Jesus' clothes were neatly arranged.  (On a side note, that detail has been used in lectures that people have given about the importance of being neat.  I prefer to see that detail in an uplifting context, however, rather than in a context that puts people down or makes them feel less-than: that Jesus is one who brings a beneficent order----or one would hope!) 

But would that absolutely, positively convince a skeptic?  Not necessarily.  It's not even hard evidence, for that matter.  But the stories do seem to have a personal touch that I somewhat like.


  1. I think this is why I enjoy your posts, James. An appreciation for the Jesus story, coupled with a reasonable amount of logic, and a way of bringing conservatives and liberal together. :)

  2. Thanks Lee! What I enjoy most about your blog posts and books is that you give a variety of perspectives fair consideration.


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