Reviews of Books about the Historicity of the Resurrection
By Christopher Price & John Sabatino
Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus
by William L. Craig
William L. Craig is probably the leading Christian apologist for the historicity of the resurrection. He has several popular treatments available, the most recent being The Son Rises. Although I have benefited from these treatments, I wanted to see the more detailed and in-depth research behind these popularizations. So I forked over the money and bought it. Did it live up to my hopes and the price I paid? Yes. Worth every penny.
This book is, in essence, a passage-by-passage discussion of the historicity of the New Testament passages dealing with Jesus' resurrection. Craig has spent a great deal of time conducting research in Europe and it shows. At over 400 pages, Craig uses every bit of space to cram in informed discussion. He interacts with a tremendous amount of European and U.S. research, from all sides of the discussion. You would be hard pressed to find so much ground covered with so much familiarity.
After a brief preface, Craig spends about 150 pages dealing with the Pauline evidence for the resurrection. He makes a compelling case for the early origins of Paul's formulaic recitation of the 1 Cor. 15 tradition about the death, burial, resurrection and appearances of Jesus to various witnesses. There is also a convincing and thorough examination of the nature of Jesus' resurrection body in Paul's letters--a physical resurrected body. This discussion should be enough to drive a steak through the heart of the lingering skepticism that clings to the belief that Paul believed only in a "spiritual" resurrection (which is, a Craig shows, a contradiction in terms).
After wrapping up the Pauline evidence, Craig turns to the Gospels and continues his methodical, passage-by-passage discussion of the evidence. As with the rest of the book, you will be hard pressed to find one scholar who engages so many different theories and approaches in one book. Finally, Craig wraps it up and makes his case for the resurrection. Those who have read one of Craig's popular books or even heard him in a debate will immediately see the origins of those treatments. It was nice to see how well the research and background supporting the final argument actually fit together.
I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus
by George Eldon Ladd
Written by respected New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus weighs in at just over 150 pages and is unusual in that it provides an unabashed historical argument for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. For those who have trudged through weighty tomes devoted to the resurrection, the brevity of Ladd’s arguments will be a nice respite. But despite its length, I Believe delivers an informed and beneficial argument for the historical resurrection of Jesus.
Ladd begins by discussing the relationship between history and faith. He argues that certain matters related to faith, such as Jesus’ death, can be established by historical evidence. That Jesus died “for our sins,” however, is not penetrable by historical evidence. But what about the resurrection? If one rejects history as being merely the search for the best naturalistic explanation and instead looks for the best explanation possible, Ladd believes the resurrection is that explanation. He concedes this may not convince those who reject the existence of God or who insist on the best naturalistic explanation, but rightly recognizes that simply assuming naturalism is not he same as demonstrating it. Thus, in his own words, “[i]t is our purpose to establish the thesis that the bodily resurrection of Christ is the only adequate explanation to account for the resurrection faith and the admitted ‘historical facts.’”
The next chapter deals with the centrality of the resurrection to the New Testament message and is thankfully short. Perhaps this issue was more contentious in the 70s, but it seems unnecessary today. In any event, Ladd moves on to the best part of the book, which is several chapters examining beliefs about the after-life and resurrection in the Old Testament and ancient Judaism, as well as a chapter about messianic expectations and how they related, if at all, to resurrection belief. N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God covers some of the same ground in much more detail and reaches some of the same conclusions, most notably that the resurrection belief of Jesus’ disciples cannot be explained as simply outgrowths of the beliefs of their times. Something much more concrete is needed to explain the origins of Christian faith in the resurrection. Though obviously much shorter than Wright’s book, Ladd presents it well and with quick but informative references to primary sources.
Next, Ladd spends two chapters on the gospels, one on the Nature of the Gospels and the other on the Witness of the Gospels. The Nature of the Gospels is a short chapter that sets forth Ladd’s generally conservative conclusions on the dates and trustworthiness of the Gospels. It is too short to change minds, but lays the foundation for his evaluation of the Witness of the Gospels. The chapter on the Witness of the Gospels is a good one, though not nearly long enough to be a full historical-critical evaluation of them. Nevertheless, Ladd scores points by his straightforward grappling with the tension between the accounts of the empty tomb and resurrection appearances. In a rare but laudable move for a New Testament scholar, Ladd lays out his own harmonization (and it’s a pretty good one). He also is impressed by the Gospels’ failure to actually narrate any sort of resurrection, such as is found in the legendary Gospel of Peter. Other indications of reliability lead Ladd to conclude that seven historical facts may be gleaned from the gospels and related studies:
- Jesus was dead and buried.
- The disciples were not prepared for his death; they were overcome with confusion.
- The tomb was found on Easter morning to be empty.
- The empty tomb was not itself a proof of the resurrection. Mary thought the body has been stolen.
- The disciples encountered certain experiences which they took to be appearances of Jesus risen from the dead. In the last analysis, it does not really matter where or to whom these appearances occurred.
- Contemporary Judaism had no concept of a dying and rising Messiah.
- The disciples proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem, near where he had been buried.
In an unorthodox move, Ladd only turns to the writings of Paul after discussing the Gospels. Once there, he first focuses on 1 Cor. 15 as “the most striking and important account of the resurrection appearances in the New Testament." As Ladd demonstrates, this is an early tradition pre-dating Paul and attests to the bodily nature of the resurrection (though with the transformation of the body). He goes on to refute the notion, still advanced by some today, that Paul considered his transformational encounter with Jesus to be a merely visionary event. Ladd points out that Paul himself discussed visionary encounters with God but always distinguished them from his encounter with the risen Jesus. All told, this chapter is an excellent examination of Paul’s understand of the resurrection.
Ladd’s next chapter, “’Historical’ Explanations,” brings it all home and wraps up the historical inquiry. The historian, he argues, has to cope with the facts established by the evidence and determine the best explanation for it. The evidence according to Ladd is as follows:
- a dying and rising Messiah was utterly unexpected;
- Jesus was dead;
- Jesus was buried;
- the disciples were disheartened and discouraged;
- on Easter Sunday the tomb was found empty;
- the fact of the undisturbed grave clothes;
- the disciples had certain experiences which they interpreted in terms of the person of Jesus, thus giving rise to the resurrection faith;
- the rise of the new movement based on the belief that Jesus was alive; and,
- the conversion of Paul.
Continuing his search for the best explanation for these historical facts, Ladd goes through the usual suspects of secular explanations, such as the stolen body theory, the swoon theory, and the wrong tomb theory. He finds them unpersuasive, though admittedly spends only a few paragraphs on each. As the title suggests, Ladd concludes that “Only the ‘hypothesis’ of actual bodily resurrection adequately explains the known historical facts. The only reason for not accepting the ‘biblical hypothesis’ is the conviction that it cannot be true.”
Ladd concludes with a short chapter entitled, “Does it Matter?” There seem to be many answers to that question, but Ladd focuses on how the resurrection of Jesus provides us with evidential support for the after-life in general and the Christian doctrine of the resurrection in particular. I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus is an excellent argument for the resurrection whose short length belies its value and persuasiveness. It is widely available for a reasonable price and is a worthy addition to any library.
The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus
by Gary Habermas and Mike Licona
I am not a fan of much popular apologetics -- especially on the resurrection. But when I saw that this book was 384 pages long, I thought it was perhaps an exception and would cover the issue in more detail than others. I was wrong. So why do I still rank this book so high? Because it effectively does what it sets out to do.
This book effectively equips Christians to witness to their friends, neighbors, and families using the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Habermas and Licona begin with a discussion about the importance of the resurrection of Jesus to Christianity. Though this seems obvious, the discussion is helpful because it wisely recommends focusing on the resurrection without getting bogged down in, presumably, issues such as inerrancy and a complete harmonization of the resurrection narratives. This is a common failing of Christians trying to share their faith. The authors' emphasis on keeping the eye on the ball extends throughout the book.
After the opening chapter, the book turns to the core of the issue, the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. The strength of this section is that it distills down, accurately, a high level of scholarship on the issue. Habermas and Licona present five "minimal facts." That is, they focus on five historical facts that are accepted by most scholars:
1) Jesus' death by crucifixion;
2) Jesus' disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them;
3) Paul, a persecutor of the church, has suddenly changed to faith in Jesus;
4) James, skeptical of Jesus during his ministry, was suddenly changed to faith in Jesus; and,
5) The tomb of Jesus was empty.
No. 4 is perhaps more disputed than Habermas and Licona discuss (and by far the least important of the five), but the rest of the discussion accurately represents the state of historical scholarship. Although their discussion will not supplant the more probing discussions of N.T. Wright or William L. Craig, it will equip the reader to accurately present to their friends, neighbors, and family the persuasive historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. They fit their "minimal facts" together effectively to present a strong case for the resurrection of Jesus.
Most of the rest of the book deals with various objections to the resurrection. This includes the usual suspects, such as the hallucination theory or the forgotten grave site. But it also includes others that scholars tend to ignore but which actually pop up in real conversation, such as whether Jesus could have been an alien (don't laugh, I've heard that one) and how do we know that even if there was a resurrection that God had anything to do with it. Their response effectively focuses on the context of Jesus' ministry and claims that he made about himself.
There are a few sections that appear out of place, such as the discussion of near death experiences and even the section about the existence of God. But the book closes with its strength; which is a helpful discussion about how to take the knowledge conveyed and use it to convince others that Jesus is resurrected from the dead.
Christians wishing to share effectively the core of their faith with those they care about will find this book very helpful. And for that reason, I recommend it.
The Death of Death, Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought
by Neil Gillman
In the Death of Death, Conservative Jewish theologian Neil Gillman writes a history of the development of Jewish views about the afterlife. He begins by explaining that what Orthodox Jews consider history is in fact simply “myth.” Gillman is quite clear that he does not believe that God revealed His word to His special people, but that Judaism is rather the result of some men grasping to understand God. He affirms belief in God and believes that God has sown knowledge of Himself throughout his creation, but to believe that God has revealed Himself to man is to engage in idolatry. This position is much more assumed than demonstrated. Nor is a justification readily apparent. If we are truly made in the image of God and to serve God's purposes, why is it idolatry to suppose that He would choose to communicate with us?
Most of the rest of the book is a much more straightforward presentation of the history of Jewish views on the afterlife. Like most scholars, Gillman finds little evidence of firm views on any kind of afterlife in the earlier books of the Old Testament. His review of the relevant passages is informative as he traces an increased concern for the afterlife, culminating in the affirmation of bodily resurrection. Although Gillman entertains the possibility that foreign influence was at least partly responsible for the development of resurrection belief, he seems to lean towards it being a natural outgrowth of core Jewish belief.
As we move beyond the Old Testament, Gillman continues tracing Jewish beliefs, noting the introduction of the concept of the immortality of the spirit. His use of sources is somewhat less helpful here. Although Jewish sources are reviewed proficiently, he gives insufficient attention to first century Christian sources. While lamenting a lack of sources about the Pharisees – and dismissing the Torah as a credible source for their beliefs – he gives short shrift to valuable Christian sources from the time period, such as Paul’s letters and Acts. Paul -- a self-identified Pharisee -- gives a first-hand window into first-century Jewish views on the resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15 is an extended discussion on the nature of resurrection and the body after its resurrection. Acts also includes more detailed information about the difference between Sadducee and Pharisee views than is discussed by Gillman.
This is unfortuante, for it would have added valuable primary sources to his inquiry into the views of Second Temple Judaism. Christians scholarship has come a long way and is much more open to using and evaluating Jewish sources to shed light on Christian beliefs. Jewish scholarship could benefit from the same practice. Not only were the early Christians Jews themselves, but Christian development on these beliefs would serve as a good point of comparison and contrast for elucidating Jewish thoughts on the same issues.
In any event, Gillman next charts the “Canonization” of bodily resurrection in Jewish thought through the Talmud and into the Middle Ages. He spends an entire chapter on Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher whom he credits with moving Judaism away from bodily resurrection to an emphasis on spiritual resurrection. Thereafter, he discusses the mystics, who also played a role in spiritualizing Jewish afterlife belief. Add in the Enlightenment and Jewish intellectual, though not religious, assimilation into modern Europe, and the Reform and Conservative Judaism of the 19th century has largely abandoned bodily resurrection, once the cornerstone of its faith, in favor of spiritual immortality, the hallmark of Judaism’s long-time competitor, Greek philosophy. Little space is given to the Orthodox.
But Gillman’s book is not just about history, it is about the present. He sees a return to an emphasis on bodily resurrection in Reform and Conservative Judaism. The return to an emphasis on bodily resurrection is explained well as a return to Judaism’s emphasis on God’s concern for the present life and his power to shape our futures. But as with the author’s own apparent re-embrace of bodily resurrection, it is unclear just what is meant. It is accepted, but only as “myth” and “symbol.” For Gillman, to believe it is literally true is to “trivialize” God. This assertion, like the one that to believe God revealed His word to Moses is to engage in anti-Jewish idolatry, are disappointingly conclusory. It comes across more as one mired in quasi-naturalistic assumptions than a rigorous theological or even philosophical conclusion.
The history in the book, with the exception of neglecting Christian sources and the knowledge they can shed on Second Temple Jewish afterlife beliefs, is well presented. Gillman ably covers 3,000 years of Jewish attitudes on the afterlife. Also well presented is the reasoning behind certain shifts in beliefs and the leading thinkers behind those shifts. The book, however, is steeped in the author’s less-than-adequately-explained use of terms such as “symbol” and “myth” and “literal,” that left this reader at times wondering just what it is that was really believed. Put another way, what do you really believe if you say you believe in bodily resurrection but only as a “symbol” and not as a “literal” redemption? In what way does that give hope and affirm God’s goodness and value for the present human condition? There may be answers to these questions but I did not find them in this book.
Although the book does not focus on, and indeed scarcely mentions, Jesus' resurrection, it is nevertheless a helpful resource for the study of that event. It provides helpful overviews of Jewish thoughts on bodily resurrection in the Old Testmant, through the intertestamental period, into the Talmud. It also does a good job at points of explaining just why bodily resurrection was so important to Jewish, and therefore Christian, theology. Finally, it is always good to read the perspective of somone who affirms a similar, but at the same time different, perspective. As a Christian reviewer of The Death of Death notes, "To read about such matters in a Jewish key is to allow 'like and unlike' to become a stimulant to my faith."
The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives
by Reginald Horrace Fuller
The strength of this work is that it covers all of the New Testament sources of the resurrection narratives, meaning Paul's letters as well as the canonical Gospels. There is also an appendix that discusses the resurrection appearances in some of the apocryphal gospels. Fuller is obviously competent and familiar with the material. He finds redactions, exaggerations, conflations, and invention at every turn. In fairness, though, he also reaches conclusions more traditional, such that Luke had an independent source beyond Mark, that the Emmaus Road Story is based on earlier tradition, and that at least the report of the empty tomb by a women or women is historical.
The greatest weakness of this book is the leaps that Fuller takes to reach conclusions that will appear to the reader as speculative, at best. The book has less than 200 pages of text. There are sentences that should be paragraphs and paragraphs that should be chapters and chapters that could easily be books. As a point of comparison, Raymond Brown takes 1500 pages and two volumes to cover the death and burial of Jesus. This does not mean that Fuller is always wrong, just that he often provides insufficient information and discussion for us to form an opinion one way or the other.
One example is Fuller's conclusion that the "third day" reference in 1 Corinthians 15 "is not a chronological datum, but a dogmatic assertion." Why the disciples would have found "on the third day" to be dogmatically necessary is gleaned from much later apocalyptic writings in the Talmud. But not only are these sources much later than the resurrection narratives, they are not discussed or even cited (Fuller provides a secondary reference). Nevertheless, Fuller assumes that these apocalyptic beliefs about the significance of the "third day" must have been powerfully active during the time of Jesus. So powerful that the early Christians had to invent a reference to "on the third day" to meet that expectation. But apparently not powerful enough to have left any contemporary evidence of its existence. This seems unlikely and needs much more evidence than is cited.
I do not mean to impugn Fuller. After sweeping away the possibility that there was a historical event that prompted the tradition, he had little choice but to come up with an alternative--no matter how unsupported. Of course, his discussion of why there could not have been a historical prompting for the tradition rests on his assumption that early Christians would not have seen the discovery of the empty tomb and the beginning of the resurrection appearances as indicating the day Jesus was resurrected. I disagree and think at the very least the point merits much further attention. Certainly it would be reasonable for the apostles to conclude that Jesus' resurrection occurred within the same time frame as the empty tomb being discovered and the beginning of the resurrection appearances. Fuller also ignores the reports that Jesus referred to the destruction of the temple and its being rebuilt in three days. This tradition is attested by two traditions (Jn. 2:19 and Mark 14:58; 15:29) so it is not so easily dismissed.
In addition to a simple lack of sufficient discussion, part of the problem seems to be Fuller's apparent assumption that any tension between the accounts can only be explained by authorial redaction. He also sometimes views the literary evidence as a closed universe. For example, because Paul only lists resurrection appearances without supplying narratives, Fuller appears to conclude that the narratives later grew out of the lists. I find this rather unlikely. Some of the appearances in Paul never found there way into a narrative and other narratives, though existing before the gospels, have no detectable source in the list. Additionally, Paul is expressing a creedal statement, useful in preaching and in letter writing. But it seems more likely that the list was distilled from known stories about the resurrection appearances. After all, the leaders of the church had actually experienced these appearances themselves (Peter, James, Paul, the Twelve, and the Apostles). Not nearly enough attention is given to the dynamic of how these witnesses would have shaped the development of the narrative traditions. Paul lived at least as late as 62 CE. James too lived into the 60s. Though we have less information about Peter, he too seems to have lived into the 60s. (Not to mention the Twelve and the other apostles). All of them were continuously active in the church as leaders of the young movement. Would they have really left such little imprint on gospels written only 5-15 years later? I am skeptical. But again, the issue deserves much more attention than it gets.
Overall, an informative read with some insights and good discussion. But ultimately this book is more useful for pointing out the issues than resolving them.
In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Actions in History
ed. R. Douglas Geivett
Aptly named "A Comprehensive Case," this book builds from the foundational issues and works its way up to the crowning miracle of Christendom -- the resurrection of Jesus. However, if you are looking for explorations of modern miracles or similar evidence, this is not the book you want.
It is to the editor’s credit that the first chapter is given to two who deny the possibility of miracles (and/or their detection). Taking David Hume's infamous chapter, "On Miracles," as the opening salvo, In Defense adequately sets the stage for the debate. Hume's arguments continue today in full force. They have by no means lost their influence. But lest you think these Christian apologists are setting up an outdated strawman, another section is given to contemporary atheist philosopher Anthony Flew to voice his comments on Hume as well as miracles.
With the opposition in place, four Christian writers begin making the philosophical case for the possibility that miracles exist and can be detected. A section on defining miracles is a welcome narrowing of the issue. Then Norman Geisler persuasively takes Hume and Flew head on and Francis Beckwith wrestles with the possibility of detecting miracles in history. The closing chapter in this section deals with "Recognizing a Miracle" and is also helpful in narrowing the issue.
The next set of chapters provides additional philosophical justification for believing in the possibility of miracles as well as their detection, including an aggressive assault on metaphysical naturalism by Ronald Nash and a brief argument for the existence of God. The main goal of this chapter is to establish the existence of a God who can and is inclined to act in human history. In other words, a God who does miracles. Overall this section succeeds in establishing its arguments and provides one more link in the chain of argument.
The final section rests on the shoulders of the previous chapters. Given that philosophical objections to the possibility and detection of miracles are not sound, and that there likely is a God who can and is inclined to intervene, we now get the arguments that God has done just that. This makes it somewhat odd that this chapter leads off with an argument about “Miracles in the World Religions." This chapter is more effective in showing that Hume's argument about competing miracle traditions in various religions is not necessarily a valid objection than it is in exploring the competition in detail. It probably belonged with the other chapters focusing on philosophy. Then follows a chapter on fulfilled prophecy that provides an interesting discussion, but is too short to convince fence sitters. After that, a chapter argues that the incarnation of Christ is not logically incoherent. Interesting, but not something that most of us have spent much time contemplating.
By far the best case-specific arguments for miracles in the book are William L. Craig's chapter on the empty tomb and Gary Habermas' chapter on the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Craig, used to having the whole argument to himself, adjusts well to tackling only the empty tomb. He takes Crossan to task for his ill considered insistence that no crucifixion victim would have been buried at all (an argument disproved by the archeological find of the body of a crucified first century man in a family burial chamber near Jerusalem). Habermas, who I have had less exposure to, does a good job discussing the resurrection appearances of Jesus by focusing on the earliest reports referenced in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. The book then ends with a conclusion wrapping up the case for "God's Action in History."
Overall, this book delivers what it promises -- a comprehensive defense of miracles. Of course, any single chapter could itself be a book (and in fact, many chapters are books by the very same authors). But this book clearly sets the stage, offers solid discussions of the underlying philosophy, and delivers some good arguments for believing that God has indeed acted in human history.
Jesus’ Resurrection, Fact of Fiction: A Debate Between William L. Craig & Gerd Ludemann
eds. Paul Copan & Ronald K. Tacelli
This book is the written presentation of a live debate between two leading scholars on the resurrection, William L. Craig and Gerd Ludemann. I enjoy these kinds of presentations because they are a good way of getting to the heart of the issue and seeing the best evidence and counter-arguments both sides can marshal. Craig and Ludemann were given opening statements, two rebuttals apiece, and closing arguments.
In my opinion, Craig was the clear winner of the debate both in terms of substance and technique. He is practiced in formal discourse and lays out his argument clearly and succinctly. Ludemann, as fine a scholar as he is, was not up to the challenge. He truly seemed unaware that proponents of the resurrection could actually formulate sophisticated arguments in favor of their position and so was unprepared to respond to them. I am not alone in this assessment, as I have seen several skeptics express their disappointment in Ludemann’s performance, going so far as to dismiss the entire debate as merely the result of Craig’s superior and practiced technique.
Added bonuses to this debate are the responses provided by Stephen Davis, Michael Goulder, Robert Gundry, and Roy Hoover. In my opinion, Robert Gundry’s is the most worthwhile as he examines the strengths and weaknesses of Craig’s arguments, resulting in an even more powerful case for the resurrection being made by this book.
The Resurrection, An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Resurrection of Jesus
eds. Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, and Gerald O’Collins
A collection of essays contributed by participants in a “Resurrection Summit” that was held in New York, Easter 1996. The contributors are top scholars with reputations for their work on the topic of resurrection. Many of the essays include thoughtful responses from other scholars. These responses are sometimes critical and sometimes complimentary. I enjoyed reading thoughtful evaluations of the thoughtful arguments that I had just finished reading.
Space precludes a review of every chapter, but I will discuss some of the ones I found most interesting. In Chapter 2, O’Collins helpfully provides an overview of the scholarly debate on various issues related to the resurrection, such as what the early Christians meant by the proclamation of the resurrection, the nature of the resurrection appearances, the empty tomb, and the nature of “Easter faith.” O’Collins does a good job of summarizing the positions of various scholars and, often, providing quick responses to their claims. He is particularly effective in reducing the arguments by some scholars that the early Christians meant by their resurrection proclamation about Jesus something other than that Jesus had been raised from the dead (such as they were simply saying they believed in the continuing sense of empowerment Jesus brought them). He also discusses reaction to his theory that the resurrection appearances, though very real, were a “graced seeing” that would not have been visible to those that were not granted eyes to see; as well as reducing the theory that the resurrection appearances were in fact something akin to near-death experiences. Thereafter, O’Collins spends some time refuting Yarbro Collins’ argument that the empty tomb narrative in the Gospel of Mark is not meant to be literal but is only a vivid way of describing the early Christian proclamation of resurrection. The rest of the chapter moves along just as briskly and is worth the effort. O’Collins educates his readers as to a diversity of theories, some far-fetched, while also providing persuasive critiques.
Stephen Davis in Chapter 6 explores three different explanations for the resurrection appearances. First, that they were seen by “normal vision,” by which he means that what they saw was really there disturbing and reflecting photons of life. Second, that they were the result of “subjective vision,” by which he means that what they saw was not really there and was merely the product of their own minds. Third, and perhaps the one least familiar to readers, is that they were result of “objective vision,” by which mean means that what they saw was really there but visible only to those to whom God had granted eyes to see. This is the position of O’Collins referenced above. In my opinion, Davis persuasively argues that what is described in the New Testament was seen by “normal vision” and then considers the implications of that conclusion.
Finally, in Chapter 7, William Alston explores the question, “What can we learn from the Gospels about what really happened on and just after the first easter?” Alston takes direct aim at and makes persuasive points against a book I have reviewed, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives. Philosopher Richard Swinburne makes his case for the resurrection in Chapter 8 and William L. Craig takes on John D. Crossan’s views of the resurrection in Chapter 10.
This book would be a valuable addition to anyone’s library on the resurrection. But it is especially helpful if you are just getting your feet wet, as it gives you access to the theories and arguments of many leaders in the field.
The Resurrection According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke
by Norman Perrin
After reading The Resurrection by Norman Perrin, I can definitely say that he knows a lot. A lot about Greek literature and a lot about these gospels. He especially knows a lot about how the synoptic gospels differ from each other. And that is the focus of his book. Perrin attempts to understand how each views the resurrection of Jesus by focusing on how they differ from each other. Unfortunately, due to the substantive and methodological problems in his analysis, Perrin usually ends up engaging in undue speculation (however well informed) or stating the obvious.
First, by building his case on how much the synoptic gospels differ instead of how each presents the resurrection as a whole, Perrin skews his analysis to highlight the different emphasis. This problem is highlighted by the length of the book--which weighs in at 84 pages of text and only refers to six sources (2 of which are other works by Perrin).
Second, Perrin does not include any discussion of the Gospel of John. To his credit, Perrin is frank about this and explains that it is because he lacks the requisite expertise. Even so, if the focus is on how different Christian authors, and presumably communities, viewed and retold the story of the resurrection, any analysis that simply ignores the Gospel of John is denying itself an important part of the picture.
Third, Perrin does not give much time to discussing the earliest presentation of the resurrection in the letters of Paul, except for a few pages in his conclusion. Even then he does not really work them into the picture of understanding the gospels in light of how the earliest Christian writings and formula understood the resurrection. Again, this seems to be denying the analysis much needed data.
Fourth, because Perrin starts with the Gospel of Mark and focuses on how Matthew and Luke differ from Mark, his analysis can only be as good as his conclusions regarding Mark. And here it appears there are significant flaws. Though Perrin concedes much of the argument that the original version of Mark did not end at 16:8 is strong, he nevertheless concludes that it did indeed end there. Additionally, Perrin argues that Mark envisions no resurrection appearances at all! Even though Perrin concedes that Mark's readers were aware of stories of such appearances. What about Mark's statement that Jesus will meet his followers in Galilee? Perrin does not think this refers to Jesus appearing to the disciples there (as Matthew reports). Rather, to Perrin "Galilee" is code word for the mission to the gentile nations. This all seems rather unlikely, especially if we give any place to Paul's letters in the analysis. These, in my opinion, foundational errors set the entire program off on the wrong foot--no matter how intelligent or informed the rest of Perrin's discussion.
All in all, Perrin's book does a good job of pointing out differences between the synoptic gospels and their treatment of the resurrection. The analysis of the significance of those differences rests on some assumptions/conclusions that prove to be unpersuasive. And much data -- such as Paul's letters and the Gospel of John -- are sacrificed to the further detriment of the enterprise. Still, the price is right and informed speculation can be helpful in trying to sort out the gospels and the resurrection. Just recognize the limitations of this particular analysis.
Resurrecting Jesus: Earliest Christian Tradition and its Interpreters
by Dale C. Allison
Dale Allison’s new book on the Resurrection is simply required reading for anyone involved in the debate concerning the particulars of the burial, empty tomb, and resurrection of Jesus. His treatment of the resurrection is actually a 177 page essay comprising one of 6 chapters in Resurrecting Jesus that discuss various subjects, and it is this essay that we shall be reviewing.
Allison starts off by listing the current range of options regarding the origins of the resurrection belief – some of which he will later wrestle with in the closing sections. He gives short summaries of explanations that range from the orthodox to the hyper-skeptical. Prior to any of the serious analysis, we are treated to an extremely helpful exposition of Allison’s own biases concerning the matter. Allison confesses that he is inclined to believe in, and hope for, the bodily resurrection of Jesus on the grounds that he is a believing Christian with certain commitments to the teachings of Jesus which he would like to see vindicated, he desires a God who cares enough about creation to intervene at times, he generally prefers happy endings, and such an event would confirm the ultimate value of life and the goodness of creation. He then considers various issues that cause doubts to arise in his own mind concerning the possibility of such a bodily resurrection. Here he confesses confusion and bewilderment regarding various philosophical conundrums raised by a literal reading of the doctrine as presented in the NT. For instance, if, according to Paul, Jesus’ resurrection was a model for our own, such that our resurrected bodies have continuity with our earthly bodies, what do we do with the problem of decomposition?
Allison then goes into detailed analysis of the resurrection formulas and confessions in the NT. He confirms what most already accept – that “God raised Jesus from the dead” is a very early formula without apologetic adornment, a “very primitive way of speaking," probably finding its setting in Christian worship given Jewish liturgical parallels (p. 230). Based upon an analysis of the “three day” motif, he concludes that Easter faith emerged immediately after Jesus’ death “indeed within a week. . . .” (p. 232). Moving on to 1 Cor. 15:3-8, though he is unsure about its exact form, he regards it as a “universally recognized Pre-Pauline formula” (p. 234) that, at a bare minimum, cannot be in contradiction with what Paul learned in his visits to the Christians in Jerusalem. It shows us that Paul and the early Christians were interested not just in the fact of the resurrection but also in the chronology of appearances. Allison refutes the notion that Paul’s formula is in any way all that constituted early Christian belief in the resurrection, and the notion that “complete stories” about the appearances were only concocted at a later date, noting that it would be extremely unlikely for Paul’s listeners not to question him further on these “shorn assertions.” He also takes issue with the idea that Paul’s formula is concerned solely with legitimation of authority, as opposed to actual occurrences, on the grounds that the “nameless 500” would be superfluous were this his intent, and the fact that many prominent names are mentioned need mean no more than that Paul simply was choosing to report appearances to those with whom his audiences would have been familiar. He concludes by charting various sequential similarities between the list in 1 Cor. 15 and the Gospel accounts of the resurrection, noting that, other than the fact that the appearances to James and the women are not present in the latter, there is an underlying common pattern, and “Paul is perhaps not so far removed from the Gospel traditions as sometimes implied” (p. 239).
As he moves on to the appearance narratives, Allison notes other possible congruences with Paul in that the special mention of the first appearance to Peter (1 Cor 9:1) resonates with Luke’s explicit mention of such (Luke 24:34), Peter’s “pride of place on the canonical lists of the Twelve (Matt 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13)," and Peter’s special mention in the angelic instruction given to the women in Mark 16:7 (p. 240). He also finds a general congruence between the appearance to the twelve in 1 Cor. 15:5 and the various appearances to the disciples referred to in Mark 14:28/16:7, Matt 28:16-20, Luke 24:36-49, and John 20:19-23. Though the geographical setting varies, he sees here a similar structure in their statement of a setting, an appearance, a response, the commissioning, and the promise of succor. He considers these accounts to be most likely variants of the same “proto-commissioning.” Allison proceeds to analyze the different appearance narratives in the Gospels, trying to see if there are any historical details that we might confirm in such an investigation. He sees tradition behind the christophany to Mary as portrayed in the Gospels. He lists several reasons for concluding this, some of which are that: 1) Just as Peter’s name is first in the lists of the Twelve, Mary is almost without exception listed first where she is mentioned in the earliest sources. This he sees as easily attributed to her having seen Jesus first; 2) He sees her angelophany of Mark 16:7 and the christophany of John 20:17 as rooted in a common occurrence; 3) That she had one of these experiences is strongly attested in the tradition and unlikely to have been attributed to a woman and former demoniac were it not grounded in something factual; and, 4) Quoting G.W. Trompf, he notes that appearances in the apocryphal traditions may be fictionalized, but they are not attributed to people who were not formerly known to have had such experiences, and thus, presumably, we should not expect this to be the case with the canonical Gospels.
Allison next argues that we cannot conclusively sift out any historical kernels in the Emmaus encounter (Luke 24:13-35) because it is “so illustrative of Lukan themes and interests” (p. 254). He feels similarly about the ascension narratives of Acts. He offers a speculative argument for a proto-appearance story of the appearance to Peter that is ultimately behind the appearance and miraculous catch of fish in John 21:1-17 and the miraculous pre-Easter catch of Luke 5:1-11 which he thinks is a retrojected resurrection appearance. He then offers a brief treatment of the appearance to James which we can know very little about, and finally, the appearance to Paul, which he thinks is recorded somewhat faithfully in Acts. Allison summarizes his work on the appearances by nothing that, because of the limitations of historical-critical tools, “despite all the details in the fuller accounts in the Gospels and Acts, they do not, upon initial analysis, take us much beyond 1 Cor 15:3-8” (p. 269). Its puzzling that he does not mention his earlier conclusion on the appearance to Mary which somewhat contradicts this summary statement. He concludes with: “At least two items, whose historicity Paul substantiates, give us much to ponder. The first is that several people reported christophanies. The second item is that Jesus ostensibly appeared on more than one occasion to more than one person. These appear to be facts, and they raise the question of how we should explain them” (p. 369).
The next section is devoted to an interdisciplinary examination of apparitions, and grief-induced visionary experience that we can do no justice to in attempting to summarize. Allison has steeped himself in the secondary literature here, and anyone studying the resurrection appearances will have to grapple with the vast amounts of data he has brought forth. Like Ludemann, he believes that the appearances can be explained as grief-induced visions of the bereaved. But his presentation has a twist. He relates more than one of his own experiences of such grief-induced visions of friends and family members. One of them involves his recently deceased father appearing to various members of Allison’s family and sometimes having long interactive conversations. Contrary to Ludemann, having first-hand experience, Allison clearly is not quick to dismiss any of these experiences, or any visionary experience, as mere hallucination. This section by far will be the most challenging to traditional apologists, as Allison shows conclusively that such experiences encompass all senses and there isn’t much in the Gospel accounts that do not find analogy in them. Indeed, “visions” may be inferior to “appearances” in describing many of these experiences. No less challenging are such experiences to the skeptic, as they are just left with infinitely more than Jesus’ appearances that they must explain away. In my own research, having started off highly skeptical of such accounts, the more I familiarized myself with the phenomenological details of these events, the less certain I became that they could be passed off as mere hallucinations, and the more open I am to such experiences as providing good models for the resurrection appearances (as John Pilch and John D. Crossan have also come to conclude), though I tend to see them as a subspecies of the more general category of altered states of consciousness.
However, there are still problems with such a view. N.T. Wright has pointed out, with all of the evidence in favor of the common occurrence of such experiences, they were probably known in the ancient world, and one is still left to wonder why they were not merely seen as “ghost stories” or something of the like. If one counters that it was the combination of these experiences with the empty tomb that was the tipping point, it still needs to be remembered, as Allison shows extensively, that empty tombs had plenty of plausible naturalistic explanations in the first century. One also has to ask why other early Jews and/or Christians did not see grief-induced hallucinations of the recently deceased and interpret these as resurrections. Especially the followers of other would-be messianic hopefuls. Jesus certainly was not the only first century Jew whose body was nowhere to be found after he had died a martyr’s death at the hands of the Romans. Assuming the historicity of certain details of the appearance narratives, there are yet more questions that arise. Having read hundreds of accounts of modern encounters with the deceased, it is odd to see that Jesus still has his scars in the appearances. Indeed, in such experiences there is often a recognition of certain characteristic things about a person referred to in the literature as “authenticators” that are usually noticeable in these visions, such as a favorite hat, shirt, a familiar smell, etc., but the scars of crucifixion seem a somewhat morbid feature to appear. Usually if the person had a disability in life, they appear without it, and they often appear extremely youthful and radiant which comforts the recipient of the appearance. I have yet to read an account where someone appearing still bears the wounds of the violent torture that caused their death. It is odd that the appearance accounts would preserve such a detail. At the least, this observation seems to count against the hallucinatory wish-fulfilling projection theory of Ludemann. I also have yet to come across any accounts of people sitting and eating with the formerly deceased. And Mark Goodacre has made another point against at least the hallucinatory interpretation of these experiences. If these are a case of hallucinatory wish-fulfillment, the consistent failure of the disciples to recognize the risen Jesus in the Gospels really does not make sense. It seems odd that someone would project an image of a person they were very close to in a form that they themselves do not initially even recognize. Usually, there is an instant recognition in the instances of modern encounters with the deceased.
Moving along to the next section, Allison again breaks new ground, offering one of the most insightful and exhaustive treatments of arguments for and against the empty tomb in print. He analyzes each giving detailed responses, certainly refuting more arguments from both sides than he does affirm. There are so many arguments reviewed in this section that, again, it would be impossible to summarize them all. On the skeptical side, he does note that there were an abundance of legendary stories about empty tombs and missing bodies in antiquity. He dismisses the argument of apologists, based on Matt 28:11-15, that the Jewish authorities presupposed that the tomb was empty, claiming that we just cannot date such a tradition.
Concerning the argument that the disciples could not have preached the resurrection in Jerusalem if the body was still in the tomb and able to be exposed by the authorities, Allison refutes the common skeptical retort that the body was decomposed beyond recognition by citing evidence for recognition of bodies long after their interment in secondary burial rituals. However, he raises a host of other defeaters for this common apologetic argument. Many of these are extremely speculative or easily refuted and he does not really develop them. For instance, he supposes that perhaps the authorities simply were not concerned to investigate the matter. But the members of the Sanhedrin would have wanted to investigate for the same reason they wanted to have Jesus crucified in the first place. If Jesus’ death did not stop the movement specifically because of issues related to his coming back to life, they probably would have wanted to stop such rumors. Such notions challenge the authority of their decisions, in that they imply that God himself has overturned their decision. Further, just the fact that a body was possibly missing from Joe of A's tomb, and the potential illegality of such an instance, would most likely incite him (and other members of the Sanhedrin?) to investigate. Who had entered into his family tomb? Why? What had they done to it? It is simply inconceivable that, at a minimum, Joe of A. would not inspect his own family tomb, were Jesus rumored to be bodily resurrected.
Allison also refutes the idea that the lack of veneration of a tomb can be used either for or against the historicity of the empty tomb. Against common skeptical arguments, he refutes Helms notion that Mark’s account is a rewriting of Daniel 6. He shows that the women who “said nothing to anyone” in Mark 16:8 were most likely assumed to have spoken – otherwise how would Mark be retelling this story? And he also gives good reasons not to be too surprised by the fact that Paul does not explicitly mention the empty tomb. Ultimately he accepts the historicity of the empty tomb tentatively based upon two arguments. The first is the common one that Mark would probably not have invented women as the first witnesses to the empty tomb, given the general notion of their unreliability as witnesses prevalent in the time period. The second is that the disciples had several categories to describe visionary experiences of Jesus with – categories that, in line with the dualistic notions of the time period, spoke of the exaltation of his spirit or soul. Were there no empty tomb, they probably would not have used the language of resurrection which implies a physical body rising from the grave – especially since this was anticipated to take place in a collective manner at the eschaton.
In a section entitled “Problems and Presuppositions," Allison argues that we “inevitably evaluate matters by means of our presuppositions,” and that it is for this reason that we cannot establish our worldview with apologetic arguments for the resurrection. Background considerations and beliefs are essential to analyzing probabilities, and he feels as though, depending on these, one person can be rational in denying the resurrection, while another can be rational in accepting it. In the end, he really does not feel that deciding whether or not Jesus rose from the dead is the job of the critical historian and he delegates the task to philosophers and theologians. In the beginning of that very section he mentions the work of Richard Swinburne on one point but ultimately makes no comment about his conclusions.
This section is followed by a treatment of the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea and his burial of Jesus. Allison takes Crossan to task on many points, favoring arguments similar to those of the late Raymond Brown. In contrast to Crossan’s famous statement regarding the burial that “those who knew did not care and those who cared did not know," Allison concludes that “most everyone knew whether they cared or not” (p. 362)! He refutes any attempt at coming up with alternate burial traditions. And he also makes some interesting point about the remains of the crucified Yehohanan and how they bare on the issue. Allison again offers an excellent treatment of this matter.
He ends the book with a final section on bereavement, which I think is probably his most innovative, but unfortunately the least impressive from an evidential standpoint. He basically tries to employ his in-depth research into bereavement studies to explain almost every aspect of the early Christian movement. It is a valiant effort, especially his attempt to give the modern research cross-cultural validity, but he seems to go too far with much too little argument. Bereavement research is employed to explain everything from the presence of Jesus and the Spirit, the doctrine of the atonement, to the idealization of Jesus. There are some great insights in this section that deserve further attention, but ultimately many of his suggestions remain extremely speculative.
Overall, this is a work that deserves a wide readership. Allison is innovative, bold, as objective as one could possibly hope for – to the point of confessing his own biases before he begins - and at times brilliant in his analysis. Readers of any particular background who read this work are sure to disagree with many of his conclusions, but they are equally as sure to come away with a great deal of respect for the author, and many new angles from which to assess the matter of the resurrection of Jesus.
The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective
by Pinchas Lapide
Dr. Lapide is an Orthodox Jew, a theologian, a specialist in New Testament studies, and says "I accept the resurrection of Jesus not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as a historical event." To him, it is Christian claims about Jesus as the messiah rather than about the resurrection, that is the key divide between Christianity and Judaism.
This thoughtful book is a combination of history, theology, and philosophy. Lapide, in my opinion, too easily accepts the claims of some scholars who argue that Paul was ignorant of an empty tomb, the resurrection accounts in the gospels are hopelessly contradictory, and show the reflections and concerns of the early Christian community rather than the history of the event. But Lapide himself believes that too much weight has been given to these objections, and holds that once the narratives and reports are understood in their Jewish context, they are of sufficient worth to prove that Jesus was indeed raised bodily from the dead by God.
Lapide is impressed with how Jewish the resurrection accounts are insists on their being understood in that context. He vividly describes the development of the concept of resurrection in Jewish thought, explaining how Jewish resurrection belief developed as a result of its faith in a righteous God that would not let the evil on earth have the last victory. The rest of the discussion of Jewish attitudes on the resurrection, and a chapter on the Passover meal, is also valuable though not as uncommon today as when he wrote this book.
Lapide accepts the truth of much of the resurrection narratives because of the candidness with which they portray the failings and faithlessness of those who were to later be leaders in the young Christian movement. Lapide is also impressed with the prominence given to witnesses as to the empty tomb and the resurrection. He provides a Jewish perspective and Jewish references about the lack of value the Jews of the time would have placed on the word of women witnesses. Especially in such a stressful time as grieving for a loved one. Other chapters provide additional reasons for accepting the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection and the significance of that resurrection.
Though an able scholar, this small book is more and less than the usual academic treatment of the issue. It is unrepentantly a Jewish examination of the history and nature of the resurrection. As such it is a valuable contribution not only to the study of the resurrection, but to dialogue between Jews and Christians.
The Resurrection of the Son of God
by N.T. Wright
This book is one of the most significant contributions to resurrection studies of the modern era. It is the third installment of the series, Christian Origins and the Question of God, by N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham.
Wright begins, as he usually does, by explaining his methodology and presuppositions. This discussion alerts the reader to the points Wright will be addressing and how he will set about evaluating them. The beginning, therefore, is a welcome feature because many scholars do not spare sufficient time to expressly discuss these issues.
Next, Wright provides in-depth discussions of beliefs about the after life among ancient pagans, in the Old Testament, and in post-Biblical Judaism. Because few treatments on the resurrection provide this kind of research, I found this one of the most informative parts of the book. Wright convincingly shows that, despite possessing a variety of views on the after life, the ancient pagans simply did not have a belief comparable to bodily resurrection. Although Wright shares the opinion of many scholars that the Old Testament reveals little concern with the idea of life after death until its later books, he concludes that the later focus on resurrection is a natural extension of Israel’s belief in the faithfulness of an all-powerful God. In post-Biblical Judaism, which became Second-Temple Judaism by the time of Jesus, Wright demonstrates that despite a variety of Jewish beliefs about the after-life, the most common and vital was that of bodily resurrection.
After discussing the variety of after-life beliefs in the ancient world, Wright begins focusing on early Christian beliefs. Beginning with Paul, he explores in detail Paul’s beliefs about the resurrection in his letters and as related to his conversion. Wright is a Pauline specialist and his familiarity with the subject is revealed over these three chapters, bringing out excellent points in passage-by-passage discussions. Thereafter, Wright moves through the Gospels and then the rest of the New Testament, exploring the kind of resurrection belief they articulate and how they fit into the broader context of after-life beliefs of the time. And although you might think Wright would stop here, he proceeds to discuss the resurrection views of later Christian writers from 1 Clement and Ignatius, through the Apocrypha, the Apologists such as Justin Martyr and Theophilus, early Syrian Christianity, and finally the Gnostic texts.
The value of Wright’s exploration of early Christian resurrection belief goes beyond providing excellent exegesis for its own sake. Wright shows that, in contrast to the varied understanding of after-life belief in paganism and even in Judaism, early Christians attached themselves solidly to one point of the Jewish scale of after-life belief: bodily resurrection. But, as Wright points out, early Christian belief about the resurrection redefined many Jewish points in ways not anticipated therein and which did not develop within Judaism thereafter. These include 1) the splitting of the resurrection into two, with Jesus resurrected as the “first fruits” and the general resurrection to come later; 2) that Jesus’ resurrection somehow inaugurated the Kingdom of God but without a corresponding temporal authority; 3) that the resurrected Jesus was the messiah despite the fact that resurrection was not previously believed to be evidence of being the messiah; and 4) that the resurrected Jesus was the messiah despite being killed by pagan authorities. Other messianic claimants who were killed by the pagans were abandoned by their followers.
It is not until page 587 that Wright truly dives into the question of the resurrection of Jesus and history. Taking all that he has explored until now, Wright moves through the resurrection narratives with an informed historian’s eye. He provides valuable discussions of the origins of the resurrection narratives, as well as gospel-by-gospel discussions of the resurrection that brings out the contributions of each narrative to the study. Wright explores marks of historicity, such as the lack of “biblical adornment” that are more common in the Passion Narratives and the presence of women as important witnesses.
Finally, after presenting us with so much information and analysis, Wright assesses the central question of the best explanation for all of the evidence he has considered. He presents it in seven steps:
1. Second-Temple Judaism supplied the concept of the resurrection, but the early Christian view of it mutated it in ways that cannot be explained as a spontaneous development of Jewish thought. The consistent early Christian answer explaining these mutations is that they were prompted by Jesus’ tomb being empty and his resurrection appearances.
2. Neither the empty tomb standing along nor the resurrection appearances standing alone would have been sufficient to generate the early Christian belief in the resurrection. The empty tomb might be a mystery, but it would be a sad one. The resurrection appearances would be dismissed or classified as visions or hallucinations.
3. The empty tomb and the resurrection appearances taken together would explain the emergence of the early Christian belief in the resurrection.
4. Second-Temple Judaism’s definition of resurrection makes it impossible to conceive of that belief emerging without the body literally having gone missing and that person being found alive again after death.
5. The other explanations offered by early Christian opponents and later academics are insufficient to explain the early Christian belief in the resurrection.
6. In light of 1-5, it is highly probable that Jesus’ tomb was found empty on the third day and his disciples did encounter Jesus again as being really alive.
7. The best explanation for the early Christian belief in the empty tomb and having experienced Jesus alive and well again is that he was indeed bodily resurrected from the dead.
Wright spends the rest of the book elaborating on these points, especially point 7. I find him convincing in most of his argument. However, while I agree with him that the early Christian belief in the empty tomb is valuable evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, I am not as sure that the kinds of resurrection appearances reported in the Gospels would not be a sufficient cause for belief in Jesus’ resurrection, so long as Jesus’ body was indeed missing. Since this adds even more credence to the empty tomb accounts, the difference is not significant and circles back into belief in the empty tomb.
In summary, Wright’s work is a masterpiece of research and analysis. To those interested in ancient beliefs about the after life in general and the resurrection of Jesus in particular, this book is indispensable.
The Resurrection: History and Myth
by Geza Vermes
Geza Vermes is one of the top scholars on the life of Jesus and perhaps the leading scholar on the Dead Sea Scrolls. In this book, he turns his attention to the resurrection of Jesus. Unfortunately, the book lacks depth and fails to grapple seriously with alternative scholarly perspectives. References to other works are few. There are no footnotes, though there are a few non-referenced endnotes. That is not to say that Vermes is not an accomplished scholar. He surely is and because of that I was interested in his conclusions. But the conclusions of even a respected scholar cannot be divorced from his reasoning and interaction with other scholarship.
Vermes covers the usual bases, albeit briefly. He discusses the development of resurrection belief in early Judaism, the interim period, and then during Jesus’ time, including the New Testament. Few of his conclusions are beyond the pale, but time and again Vermes reaches them with little discussion and almost no interaction with other scholarship. For example, Vermes seems dismissive of Ezekiel 37:5-6’s vivid description of the valley of dry bones, thinking it mainly as a metaphor for national restoration that inspired later “creators of the new concept of bodily resurrection.” As a result, he does not really examine why it occurred to the author to use bodily resurrection as a metaphor for anything if no Jew had conceived of the idea yet. In other words, the author's use of this particular metaphor is suggestive that the concept of bodily resurrection was not foreign to early Judaism.
Vermes also concludes that few people believed in resurrection during Jesus’ time. This is a departure from the majority position that resurrection belief was more widespread among the general population of the second temple period. Although he spends more time attempting to justify this position, it is an unconvincing effort. Vermes does not come to terms with Josephus’ statement that the Pharisees “have the multitude on their side.” Antiquities 13:10:6. Although Vermes is probably correct that the Pharisees’ influence was less in Galilee, that does not mean that the doctrine of resurrection was so limited. Moreover, a strong presence in the cities and towns of Judea would have meant at least tens of thousands of Jews with a belief in the resurrection.
Furthermore, the rise of resurrection belief is most often linked to Jewish culture’s response to the martyrs of the Maccabean revolt. The theory is that so many who stood for God’s law died and were left apparently unrewarded for their faithfulness. Given God’s justice and faithfulness, something had to give and the theological tension was relieved by development of the belief that they received their reward after a bodily resurrection. The martyrs at issue were not the elite collaborators who held high positions, but the pious rural and town folk. This would seem to suggest a popularity of resurrection belief that is more widespread than Vermes allows.
Next, Vermes sometimes interprets passages in the way most helpful for his conclusions with little or no regard for reasonable, alternative understandings. Jesus’ debate with the Sadducees over marriage and resurrection is a good example. When the Sadducees – who denied resurrection altogether – tried to show its absurdity by using the unlikely hypothetical example of a woman who had many husbands in this life and asking who would be her husband after the resurrection, Jesus turned the tables on them and said that their question betrayed a fundamental ignorance of the Scriptures. Mark 12:18-25; Mt. 22:23-30; Lk. 20:27-36. The question itself was off base because in the next life we will be like angels. Vermes assumes this means that in the afterlife the righteous will be incorporeal. But none of the gospels link the issue to incorporeality (nor is it at all clear that they would; angels could be quite corporeal). Rather, the issue, as Luke makes explicit, is eternal life. The afterlife is radically different because those who participate in it will never die.
Vermes also claims that John 6:54 is inauthentic: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” According to Vermes, no Jew could have said this because they would have been “overcome with nausea.” Although Vermes is correct that the eating of blood was a biblical and cultural taboo, the step from there to absolute prohibition from using it as an allegory is belied by the evidence. Paul, who could still claim to be blameless before the law and a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and as to the law “a Pharisee,” passed on to his churches a very similar tradition and made it a central part of their worship:
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
1 Cor. 11:23-27.
Luke too, though likely a Gentile, also uses these phrases. Mark and Matthew, most likely written by Jewish authors, refer to eating Jesus’ body -- also a taboo -- but are not as explicit in the drinking of Jesus’ blood. Thus, the notion that a Jew could not have used such an allegory is unpersuasive.
Vermes also dismisses Synoptic verses speaking of “eternal life” as related to the idea of resurrection. Although Vermes sees the association of “eternal life” with the “Kingdom of God,” he says there is no necessary link to bodily resurrection. (Mk. 10:17-25; Mt. 19:16-24; Lk. 18:18-5; Mk. 10:29-30; Mt. 19:29; Lk. 18:29-30). But it is the connection of eternal life to eschatological concepts like the “Kingdom of God” which makes it almost certain that bodily resurrection is meant. Resurrection and eschatology go hand in hand. Whereas immortality of the soul required only death to “release” the soul, resurrection occurs at the “end of this age” and presages or transitions into the “Kingdom of God.” Of course, Jesus had a broader understanding of Kingdom of God, but when speaking of eternal life and the Kingdom of God, he had bodily resurrection in mind.
Although intended to be the heart of the matter, the actual discussion of the New Testament resurrection accounts is surprisingly brief. There are nine pages recounting the contents of each gospel, then eight pages of discussion with a chart. (As with the rest of the book, these are small pages with rather large print). Additional pages are devoted to the resurrection in Acts, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament. He notes the differences in the sequence of events, identities of participants, and the number and location of appearances. But rather than spend much time inquiring into the reasons for such differences, including the possible use of literary devices such as telescoping, the use of different sources or the influence of different apologetic purposes, Vermes concludes that such evidence does not satisfy the rules of a legal or scientific inquiry. Which may be true, I suppose, but tells us little about what a historical inquiry should yield.
Despite his misgivings, Vermes seems to accept the historicity of the empty tomb and the fact that some sort of appearances occurred. He explores alternative theories, such as the wrong tomb, stolen body, and not-really-dead theories, and finds them all lacking as historical explanations. So just what does Vermes think happened? I still do not know for sure. His epilogue is titled, “Resurrection in the Hearts of Men.” He admits that Jesus’ followers experienced a powerful mystical event that caused them to proclaim the gospel with authority. His theory seems to be that these two factors combined to spur them on to proclaiming the gospel, and that when their newfound missionary activities were successful, their doubts eased and Jesus was resurrected in their hearts. This seems to put the cart before the horse and fails to offer an explanation for the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances in the first instance. It also leaves unexplained Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus. Finally, it fails to explain why Jesus’ followers would have interpreted these events as a resurrection rather than some other event -- such as an assumption into heaven. This last issue is one of the crucial historical questions surrounding Jesus’ reported resurrection and the absence of any serious exploration of it is a substantial omission.
Risen Indeed: Making Sense of the Resurrection
by Stephen T. Davis
In a field crowded by apologists, historians, and New Testament scholars, Stephen T. Davis may seem a bit out of place writing about the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. He is, afterall, a professor of philosophy. As it turns out, his background in philosophy makes for a very gratifying book about the resurrection of Jesus (and the general resurrection of Christians).
Davis covers a lot of ground. In Davis' own words, the book is "a somewhat eccentric mixture of philosophy, Christian theology, New Testament scholarship, and perhaps even preaching." He covers a lot of ground, but largely maintains its cohesiveness. Though the structure is abrupt at one place, Risen Indeed effectively brings together the philosophy, theology, and apologetics related to the resurrection of Jesus.
In his first Chapter, Davis effectively engages the arguments of David Hume and Anthony Flew, which object on philosophical grounds to the possibility of evidencing miracles. To his credit, Davis takes them more seriously than do most apologetics for the resurrection. Additionally, Risen Indeed clearly makes important distinctions, such as the difference between "soft apologetics" and "hard apologetics", and the difference between a "soft miracle" and a "hard miracle." Davis concludes the chapter by noting that belief and denial of the resurrection of Jesus can be rational -- depending on the philosophical predisposition of the reader towards the possibility of a miracle. This sifting through the issues is very helpful in setting up the rest of Davis' "soft apologetic" for the resurrection.
Chapters Two and Three also plow the ground for further discussion. In a common-sense manner, Davis reduces the argument that we cannot examine the historicity of the resurrection because it is an event "outside of history" or "beyond historical inquiry." Such arguments in my opinion are simply dodges by historians afraid of upsetting the religious or the religious afraid of being proved wrong by the historians. As Davis shows, the resurrection -- if it happened -- is a historical event that happened within time and space. As a proposition, it is possible to investigate it in a historical manner.
Davis moves into the actual apologetic for Jesus' resurrection in Chapter Four--Resurrection and the Empty Tomb. He begins by responding to common objections against its historicity and concludes by arguing for the reliability of the New Testament accounts and noting the difficulty the early Jerusalem Church would have had in proclaiming his resurrection had the tomb not been empty. Both arguments are well made, but relatively brief. For fuller defenses of the empty tomb the reader should take note of Davis' references.
The book then shifts gears. Rather than proceed directly to the resurrection appearances or further evidence of Jesus' resurrection, Davis discusses basic Christian theology about the implications of Jesus' resurrection to the coming resurrection of Christians -- which, he argues, will be a similar, bodily resurrection. The theology is sound, but makes a somewhat abrupt appearance. Such considerations proceed for three chapters before we return to the direct apologetic for Jesus' resurrection. Though a little out of place in sequence, these chapters are valuable discussions of resurrection theology. Probably more interesting, however, to Christians than others.
Chapter Nine discusses the role of the resurrection in apologetics. It reiterates some points earlier made, and delves into the question of Jesus' resurrection appearances and possible alternative explanations of the resurrection. Davis' discussion is well done and effectively engages contrary views. But again, this is not a work of New Testament criticism and consultation with more detailed sources will be helpful (such as N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God).
Overall, this is an excellent book. I would recommend it for anyone who is interested in understanding the nature of the reported resurrection of Jesus, the expected general resurrection of Christians, and the apologetics related to those events. It better sets the philosophical stage for such explorations than any book I have read.
The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus
by William L. Craig
William L. Craig is perhaps the best-known apologist for the resurrection of Jesus. He set out his argument in detail in a book that unfortunately now costs well over $100. He has contributed articles on the resurrection to books like In Defense of Miracles and Jesus Under Fire. One of his debates on the resurrection has been converted into a book, Jesus' Resurrection. What has been missing, and what this book provides, is a single volume treatment of Craig's argument for the historicity of Jesus. The book is written for the layperson and weighs in at about 150 pages with relatively few references. As a popularization of Craig's argument, it is success.
Craig begins with an introduction to the issues and a refutation of some popular counter theories, such as the apparent-death theory and the wrong-tomb theory. It seems odd placement given that he has not stated his case-in-chief, but Craig discusses them in terms of historical approaches to the resurrection. On one hand it adds some interesting historical context, but it still seems a little out of place.
The meat of the book is in the next two chapters, on the Empty Tomb and the Appearances of Jesus. Craig offers ten points supporting the historical fact of the empty tomb, beginning with "The historical reliability of the account of Jesus' burial supports the empty tomb" to "The fact that Jesus' tomb was not venerated as a shrine indicates that the tomb was empty." Most of the arguments are persuasively presented, though I wish all apologists would leave the Shroud aside. But in the end, Craig adequately explains the reasons that most scholars, from diverse backgrounds, accept the empty tomb as historical fact.
The section on the Appearances of Jesus begins by demonstrating their historicity and then examines their explanations. He first shows that Peter, the Twelve, the five hundred, James, the apostles, and Paul did indeed experience appearances by Jesus. Craig then moves through the potential explanations and concludes that the best explanation for these appearances is that they were indeed real events, interactions with a living and breathing restored Jesus.
Craig caps off his argument with a discussion about the resurrection's role as the best explanation for the Origin of the Christian Faith itself. He then concludes with a scholarly alter call, explaining the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus as the way to reconcile ourselves to God and gain forgiveness of our sins.
This book is typical of Craig. He moves through the material very methodically, laying out his arguments in an informed and convincing manner--step by step. He covers aspects of the argument in other publications in more depth or with more references, but The Son Rises is beneficial in that it brings the core of his argument, and the significance of his conclusion, together in one small book.
©2005 Christopher Price & John Sabatino
Questions or comments concerning this article or the use of this article should be directed to Christopher Price.
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