2008-05-02

Resurrection: more responses to Wright, 2

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from previous post:

Wright argues that the narratives of the resurrection appearances in our canonical gospels are based on traditions that were set and hardened well before the gospels came to be written. Discussed one in previous post and attached comments. Three more to go:

  • the differences among the respective resurrection accounts do not reflect theological differences and arguments found among the later church, so variant theological dispositions of the gospel authors cannot explain their narrative differences
  • the different gospel accounts do not betray any textual or narrative interdependence
  • I will include here Wright’s reasons for thinking it noteworthy that the gospel authors did not describe the resurrected Jesus as a shining resplendent star or such — this fact supposedly demonstrates that the early “traditions” were based on some real historical experience

theological differences

Wright sees little if any theological bent behind the resurrection appearance scenes in the gospels and argues that therefore these gospel scenes rely on very early church traditions — before theological debates had time to take over.

The Gospel of John

But the differences in the accounts are readily enough explained by theological interests. John Ashton is cited to this end in a paragraph by April DeConick in her Voices of the Mystics (p.83):

The Johannine scholar, John Ashton, in his balanced monograph on the Gospel of John [i.e. Understanding the Fourth Gospel, 1991. p. 514], warns us about plunging into a morass when inter­preting this story, of reading beyond the intent of the author as, unfor­tunately, Barnabas Lindars has done in his statement: ‘According to the Jewish idea of bodily resurrection presupposed by John, Jesus is touch­able, and perfectly able to invite Thomas to handle him. ‘ Ashton reminds us to keep the author’s point of the story foremost in mind: ‘If John invented this story, as there is every reason to believe, it was not, surely, to stimulate his readers to reflect upon the tangibility of risen bodies, but to impress upon them the need for faith.’

This is obvious when one compares how the authors of the gospels of Luke and John treat similar words of Jesus:

In Luke 24:39 the resurrected Jesus is made to say:

Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Handle me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.

Compare John 20:27

Then he said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at my hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into my side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

Which is followed by:

Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

In contrast to the author of Luke’s gospel, the author of the narrative in John has no interest in explaining the difference between flesh and spirit in relation to the appearance of Jesus. Rather, the whole point of the scene — the reason for its difference from the one we read in Luke — is to instruct readers that having faith in Jesus without even seeing him is more commendable than having faith because one sees him. DeConick argues that this scene in John is really a rebuke, through the mouth of Jesus, against those Christians who believed in the superiority of seeing Jesus, through visionary experiences, as the Christians whom we associate with the Gospel of Thomas did.

John’s scene of the resurrection appearance is different from Luke’s because John was constructing his scene to illustrate and teach his theological belief in the superiority of faith without seeing Jesus. This is confirmed by the clear statement near the end of this gospel that the author’s goal is to persuade readers to believe — John 20:31.

The gospel of John evidences none of Luke’s interest in explaining the nature of Jesus’ body. His theological purpose is quite different. His different resurrection appearance scenes are crafted to illustrate this theological interest.

The Gospel of Luke

As for the Gospel of Luke, this narrative insists that all the resurrection appearances happened in and near Jerusalem, and pointedly has Jesus forbid his followers to leave that city. This contrasts with Matthew’s gospel that picks up its cue from Mark’s ending and has Jesus appear to the eleven in Galilee only.

This Jerusalem setting for the resurrection appearances in Luke’s gospel is clearly a theological decision of the author. Luke’s gospel begins in Jerusalem and its Temple, with a priestly father of John the Baptist. The newborn Jesus is blessed in Jerusalem, in the Temple. The boy Jesus returns to Jerusalem’s Temple. There is no reference to Jerusalem’s temple being desecrated by an “abomination that makes desolate”. And there is no ominous cursing of the fig-tree outside the Temple, which in other gospels can be taken as a sign that Jerusalem is to be cursed. Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem. The same author/final redactor, presumably, who wrote Acts, likewise makes Jerusalem the centre of apostolic preaching at the founding of the church. The apostles go out from Jerusalem to preach. In Luke, Jerusalem is the ideological centre of the Christian faith.

This contrasts with the Gospel of Mark which depicted Jerusalem as the den of iniquity, the place where Jesus was crucified. Galilee on the other hand was the place of the beginning of the Kingdom of God, or at least where the Kingdom was “at hand”. Matthew’s gospel follows Mark’s gospel here.

This difference in the Gospel of Luke’s resurrection appearance narrative is without doubt spawned by the theological meaning its author attached to Jerusalem.

Conclusion

No doubt a long chapter, if not a book, could be written discussing all that could be covered to bring out the theological differences guiding each gospel’s resurrection appearance narratives.

I have not even touched one most obvious point: that non-orthodox Christians from earliest times read these same gospels but understood their theological message quite differently from the way many literalists do today. They could read them as supporting their beliefs that the resurrected Christ did not have a flesh and blood body. In other words, they inform us that there are at least two ways of reading Luke’s (and John’s) passage. If one of those ways is lost in the culture of antiquity, then it is up to moderns to find it again to understand the debate as it once was. But I’ll be covering some of that in my final post addressing Wright’s 4th point. The point here is that the narratives themselves are clearly theological, and the differences between them identify the different theological slants that shaped each.

But even if one disagrees, the above cases should suffice to establish that Wright’s claims are at the very least anything but conclusive. There is clearly a strong case to be made that the differences in the resurrection appearance narratives were shaped by different theological interests.

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