Tag Archives: Resurrection of Jesus

Further on Origins of Belief in a Dying and Resurrected Messiah

Matthew Ferguson once again has an interesting post that serves as an apt sequel to my previous post on the meaning of martyrdom among pre-Christian era Judaeans: The Rationalization Hypothesis: Is a Vision of Jesus Necessary for the Rise of the Resurrection Belief?. It is a guest post written by Kris Komarnitsky, author of Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection.

Komarnitsky writes from the position of acceptance of the historicity of some form of belief in Jesus’ resurrection arising among his disciples (as distinct from my own view that there is no methodological justification for assuming a “historical core” behind our gospel narratives or a gospel narrative behind 1 Corinthians 15) when he introduces the question:

The origin of the resurrection belief is a captivating historical puzzle and the lack of a satisfying answer motivated my inquiry into this topic. Ironically, the lack of a satisfying answer for the rise of the resurrection belief subjected me to the same basic cognitive process that I will suggest led to the resurrection belief. . . . 

The conviction that Jesus was raised from the dead is found in the earliest evidence of Christian origins and appears to have come about almost immediately after Jesus’ death. How does one account for the rise of this extraordinary belief if the later Gospel accounts of a discovered empty tomb and corporeal post-mortem appearances of Jesus are legends, as many scholars believe is the case?

Subheadings give an idea of what to expect (I have not yet had an opportunity to more than quickly skim the article):

  • Introduction
  • What is Cognitive-Dissonance-Induced Rationalization?
  • Model #1: Leon Festinger’s Cult Group Study
  • Model #2: The Millerites
  • Model #3: Sabbatai Sevi
  • Model #4: The Lubavitchers
  • Conclusion from Models
  • Preconditions to a Rationalization of Jesus’ Death
  • Jesus Died for Our Sins and Will Return Soon
  • The Resurrection Belief
  • From the Resurrection Belief to Visions of Jesus to the Early Creed
  • Summary of the Rationalization Hypothesis
  • A Critique of the Bereavement Vision Hypothesis
  • Conclusion

It looks like a significant contribution to further testing of various hypotheses accounting for Christian origins.

I have been critical of the cognitive dissonance theory to explain a historical turning point leading to Christianity but Komarnitsky obviously explores this psychological explanation in a depth that I have not considered before. Some of his points coincide with the reasons I have dismissed the validity of the theory, but he adds so much more that I have yet to read more carefully and consider. From what I have noticed at this point, some of the data and proposals of Komarnitsky may well have a relevance to alternative modes of Christian origins, that is, even apart from a historical background to the gospel resurrection narratives.

Almost at random, some interesting passages that I have noticed by chance:

The answer to the second question – why did the Messiah have to die – could have been formed from Jewish beliefs about measure-for-measure recompense and vicarious sacrifice when dealing with God. An example of such beliefs can be found in the aqedah story, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac in return for God’s blessing and favor (Gen. 22.1-19). By the first century, this story had become embellished to emphasize that Isaac was a willing sacrifice: “[Isaac] was pleased with this discourse.…So he went immediately to the altar to be sacrificed” (Ant. 1.13.4).

. . . .

These new beliefs were a creative interpretation and reconfiguration of Jewish beliefs about measure-for-measure recompense and vicarious sacrifice when dealing with God, great prophets ascending to heaven, the final immortal body, the state of existence of souls in heaven, and possibly Jesus’ apocalyptic teachings and some minor Hellenistic influences. 

. . . .

However, once one integrates cognitive-dissonance-induced rationalization into the bereavement vision hypothesis, the question posed by this article logically follows: Is a vision of Jesus even necessary for the rise of the resurrection belief? 

I look forward to engaging with the post as soon as opportunity permits.


Why Does the Resurrection Happen Off-Stage in the Gospels?

Oedipus Rex

In one of the more memorable scenes in Greek drama, Oedipus reacts to the sudden revelation of his actions by moving off-stage and blinding himself. Critics over the centuries have pointed out the tragic meaning of his inner blindness before, contrasted with his outer blindness afterward. But while Oedipus’s blinding occurs out of sight, a messenger describes the gruesome details.

Jocasta has committed suicide. Oedipus has at long last fully understood the awful truth:

Bellowing terribly and led by some
invisible guide he rushed on the two doors, —
wrenching the hollow bolts out of their sockets,
he charged inside. There, there, we saw his wife
hanging, the twisted rope around her neck.
When he saw her, he cried out fearfully
and cut the dangling noose. Then as she lay,
poor woman, on the ground, what happened after.
was terrible to see. He tore the brooches—
the gold chased brooches fastening her robe—
away from her and lifting them up high
dashed them on his own eyeballs, shrieking out
such things as: they will never see the crime
I have committed or had done upon me!
Dark eyes, now in the days to come look on
forbidden faces, do not recognize those
whom you long for—with such imprecations
he struck his eyes again and yet again
with the brooches. And the bleeding eyeballs gushed
and stained his beard—no sluggish oozing drops
but a black rain and bloody hail poured down.
So it has broken—and not on one head
but troubles mixed for husband and for wife.

(Oedipus the King, Sophocles Translated by David Grene)

Some dispute surrounds the etymology of the word “obscene,” although many insist that it comes from the Greek ob-skene — referring to actions such as explicit sex and violence that must occur off-stage. But while the death of Jocasta and the blinding of her son-husband may be obscene to look at, the Greeks apparently did not find them too obscene to describe.

Oddly, however, the death of Jesus in the canonical gospels occurs “on-stage” and “on-camera,” while his resurrection does not occur within the narrative, nor is it described in a flashback. In Mark, generally believed to be the first narrative gospel, Jesus is crucified, and the people pass by, mocking and deriding him. And when he dies, it happens in full view of Jewish and Gentile witnesses. read more »

How to Improve Bart Ehrman’s Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus

Matthew Ferguson has posted a very thorough article clearly setting out a weakness in Bart Ehrman’s argument with William Lane Craig over the probability of the resurrection of Jesus.

Simply to say, as Ehrman does, that the resurrection is the “least probable” explanation and therefore it can never qualify as a historical explanation really begs the question. Craig grants that it is indeed the least probable explanation a priori but that the evidence is strong enough to lead the disinterested mind to conclude that it does turn out to be the best explanation for the evidence available. As Ferguson points out:

I don’t think that Ehrman presents the strongest case against miracles (including the resurrection) when he defines them, from the get go, as “the most improbable event.” This kind of definition is too question-begging and it opens the door to the stock “naturalist presupposition” apologetic slogan. The reason we are looking at stuff like the texts that discuss Jesus’ resurrection is precisely to see whether such a miracle could ever be probable.

Ferguson’s article clearly demonstrates the application of Bayes’ theorem in assessing historical evidence for certain propositions and he links to another article discussion the way probability reasoning works in historical studies. (I especially like his opening point in that article pointing out that history is not something that “is there” like some natural phenomenon waiting to be discovered but is a way of investigating the past.) The article also links to another relevant discussion addressing apologist arguments against the likelihood that the disciples hallucinated the resurrected Jesus.

The article is Understanding the Spirit vs. the Letter of Probability.

I won’t steal Matthew’s thunder by singling out here where he believes the emphasis belongs in discussions about the evidence for the resurrection. Suffice to say that I agree with his conclusions entirely.



Proof for the Resurrection

My my, here it is …. bona fide scholars in the field of biblical studies can actually post arguments like the one found at The Bible and Culture:

The parts of the New Testament that really prove the resurrection are not Mt. 28, Mk. 16, Lk. 24, and John 20.21. These are the stories of the first Easter. . . . But taken in themselves and on their own, . . .  they could be deliberate fiction, invented to bolster up a case.

I like the word “deliberate” in there. If the resurrection accounts are indeed fiction they must of course be “deliberate fiction” — such diabolical cunning!

So what is the “proof” for the resurrection? (Actually the title header for the post did not speak of “proof” but of “evidence”. Can’t appear to be too dogmatic to the general reader. But read on if you are of a like mind and you will not find that word “evidence” repeated anywhere. Only the word “prove” (twice).)

The proof is the gospel narratives themselves, from chapters 1 right through. No room to even contemplate the possibility of fiction if we look at them whole. (After all, “fiction” can only be born of devilish malice.) The “proof” of the resurrection, says Ben Witherington, is found in this:

If nothing had happened at the first Easter, if Jesus had simply stayed dead in the grave, he should never have had these stories of his life and teachings. . .  It is because Jesus rose from the dead that we have the Gospel records. In other words, the risen Christ is the historical Jesus and there is no other.

What sort of academic field tolerates the inclusion of such utter nonsense in its ranks?

Scholarly Preaching

How remarkable that some scholars find confirmation of the literal fundamentals of the Christian faith in their erudition. One of these is emeritus professor Larry Hurtado who would appear to have found proof of the resurrection of Jesus. Of course it is difficult for a scholar who insists that his religious faith does not undermine his scholarly integrity to express conviction that an academically rigorous analysis of the evidence demonstrates the near-certainty of the resurrection, so the point is expressed in reverse. One cannot say that the resurrection of Jesus explains the evidence, but one can say that the followers of Jesus had overwhelmingly experienced something that they came to believe was evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Scholars are happy, thereby. The sceptics can supposedly free to attribute psychotic problems to the disciples. But the believers know what is being said. And his recent audience at Perth’s Trinity Theological College who “commissioned” Hurtado to deliver his address certainly believe in the literal and bodily resurrection of Jesus.

So what is the proof?

It lies in they way two Old Testament texts — Psalm 110 Isaiah 45:23-25 — were interpreted by the “earliest believers in their efforts to understand and express their experiences and convictions about Jesus and God.”

First, the mind-conditioning.

We are hit with a series of descriptors to lead us to interpret whatever is coming as “curious”, “strange”, “astonishing”. That is, whatever is about to come has a strong emotive force — not unlike something that the earliest believers themselves supposedly felt when they encountered something strange in need of explanation.

it is a curious fact that neither [OT passage]seems to have been particularly prominent in “pre-Christian” Jewish tradition.  

Of course we are all aware that the passages are found to be of interest in the pre-Christian Jewish tradition, but Hurtado dismisses those inconveniences on the grounds that they are “not necessarily persuasive” and amount to “only a couple” of instances. So we are allowed to dismiss evidence to the contrary of our theories if we only see it “a couple of times” and can dismiss it as “not necessarily persuasive”. True believers are apparently permitted to accord themselves little perks like this in debates.

each of these OT texts receives a remarkable and highly innovative interpretation/usage in the NT texts.

Note that. There is no merely “new” or “deviant” or simply “innovative” interpretation of texts when it comes to the early Christians. No, their new interpretations are “highly” innovative, even “remarkable”.

In an astonishing reading, in vv. 9-11 the OT text is drawn on to portray a universal submission to Jesus as Kyrios, thereby bringing glory to the one God (the Father).  That is, an OT passage that emphatically declares the sole supremacy of the one God is drawn on to declare a dyadic obeisance, to Jesus and to God.  

The earliest Christians “astonish” us — scholars included! Their resurrection experience is being relayed to us all by some form of wave emotion. And of course, the OT is interpreted most dogmatically (or is that word pejorative? should I say “emphatically”) that God is a single entity, period. So let all those radical scholars who disagree be shut outside the door. And yes, Hurtado does have his critics on this point, despite his efforts to inform the public that they are somehow behind the eight-ball. (Recently I spoke to a linguist here at the campus where I work and I asked him about the status of Chomsky’s ideas in the field today. Unlike a good many biblical scholars he did not tell me that what he personally believed as if that were the only story worth listening to. He began with, “It depends on who you talk to!” Yes, he did then give his own view — but made it clear that it was his and his was one among several. How many biblical scholars prominent in the public domain are like that?)

So, what could have prompted these radically innovative readings of these OT texts in earliest Christian circles?

The argument avalanches. It is no longer merely “highly innovative.” It has now become “radically innovative”!

And what is the answer to that question? read more »

The Evolution of the Resurrection Appearances

Here’s an Easter post. Never let it be said I ignore the season.

I can’t recall where I first was introduced to the fact that the Gospel resurrection scenes show a distinct development of details according to the relative dates of the Gospels. Look at how each one appears to build on or surpass what had been written before.

Take One: Off-stage

Not Jesus' tomb, but a tomb none the less.
Not Jesus’ tomb, but a tomb none the less. (Photo credit: callmetim)

The Gospel of Mark, the earliest Gospel, actually has no resurrection scene at all. The women come to the tomb, see a young man in the tomb, then run off in fear. (Bibles that continue the story past verse 8 are incorporating what most scholars acknowledge is a passage that was not original to the Gospel. Someone much later attempted to cobble details from both Matthew and Luke to create what they presumably thought was a more satisfying conclusion.) The young man does tell the women that Jesus can be seen again in Galilee if they go there. And that’s it. There is no actual appearance of a resurrected Jesus in this Gospel.

[5] And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.

[6] And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.

[7] But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.

[8] And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.

Take Two: On-stage read more »

Why Christ rose from the dead in four different ways

Five different ways if you count the Gospel of Peter but few of us know much about that Gospel so I’ll restrict myself to what we find in those burning candles of spiritual wisdom drawn out from the dark Orient by the iron tongs of Rome — the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark. Luke and John.

Let me be perverse and open not with the first but with the second of these. I’ll conclude with the third but not omit the fourth. read more »

The Best Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus (as good as an argument for the lost civilization of Atlantis)

A map showing the supposed extent of the Atlan...
Atlantean empire: Image via Wikipedia
As a contributor to The Resurrection of Jesus William Lane Craig attempts to tidy up some looseness in the arguments for the resurrection of Jesus made by N. T. Wright in his voluminous opus, The Resurrection of the Son of God.

I quote here Craig’s recasting of Wright’s argument in a “more perspicuous” structure. He precedes his recasting with this:

[A]ttempts to explain the empty tomb and postmortem appearances apart from the resurrection of Jesus are hopeless. That is precisely why skeptics like Crossan have to row against the current of scholarship in denying facts like the burial and empty tomb. Once these are admitted, no plausible naturalistic explanation of the facts can be given.

He then presents the freshly polished argument: read more »

A serious take on Maurice Casey’s “Jesus of Nazareth”

Someone has posted a favourable review of Dr Maurice Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth. Anyone disappointed with my own difficulties in finding much of value in the book (my various references and discussions relating to it are archived here) may be pleasantly surprised to find that this “independent” scholar’s treatment has found a most favourable reception with a series of reviews on the Remnant of Giants blog: Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? Maurice Casey’s doctoral student, Stephanie Fisher, is effusive in her praises of these reviews, complementing them for their

careful attention to detail, clear argumentation, and refusal to reply on accepted authority for its own sake. No embarrassing amateurish agenda driven groupie opinions. Compared to other reviews generally by other reviewers, your reviews of this book are exceptional. I had no doubt of your independent mind or sophisticated, broadly learned, honest scholarship before, but you are inspiring. There’s hope for this discipline and a point to honest historical inquiry after all. read more »

Does the notion of a crucified messiah need a historical easter experience?

It's the Easter Bonnie!
Image by Tabbymom Jen via Flickr

It is interesting to read in a short section of Paul the Convert Alan F. Segal’s case for Christianity originating in an easter-type of experience of disciples of a historically crucified Jesus.

Having run across so many references to Segal’s book when I was reading about the heavenly ascent mystical experiences among Second Temple Jews and early Christians (blogged about in several posts in the first two weeks of March this year) I knew I could not continue posting along this line until I had read Segal’s book for myself. But this post addresses Segal’s encapsulation of the case that Christianity began when disciples of Jesus grappled with theology to explain his death. (I am aware Segal has only recently passed away, and I by no means intend any of the following post as a criticism of Segal personally. I hope it can be read as an impersonal argument. I find much of value in Segal’s works, including Paul the Convert, and of course in Two Powers, and respect him highly as a scholar.)

Segal’s argument

During the period of Jesus’ ministry some of his followers thought he was the messiah. Segal says only that it is “likely” that some of them did, but his argument depends on some of them certainly thinking so. Segal begins his explanation with this:

Since Jesus died a martyr, expectations of his resurrection would have been normal in sectarian Judaism. [Reference here to Segal’s Rebecca’s Children, pp. 60-67, 78-95] read more »

What do biblical scholars make of the resurrection?

Jesus Appearing to the Magdalene by Fra Angeli...
Image via Wikipedia

Or more specifically, what was the state of play around five years ago when Research Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University, Gary R. Habermas, had a chapter published in The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue? Habermas outlines four broad positions found among contemporary scholars and identifies a trend in which a strong majority of scholars do favour the idea that Jesus really was raised from the dead “in some sense”. I find his findings noteworthy for another reason that I will save for the end of this post. The link above is to the Wikipedia article on Habermas where he is described as an evangelical Christian apologist. Still, I was interested enough to know what the general state of biblical scholarship appears to be on the question, so I included his chapter in my reading.

“One of the indisputable facts of history”

Habermas writes (my emphasis throughout):

As firmly as ever, most contemporary scholars agree that, after Jesus’ death, his early followers had experiences that they at least believed were appearances of their risen Lord. Further, this conviction was the chief motivation behind the early proclamation of the Christian gospel.

These basics are rarely questioned, even by more radical scholars. They are among the most widely established details from the entire New Testament. (p. 79) read more »

Taking the Gospels Seriously

It seems to me that most scholarly studies that treat the Gospels as sources of historical information about Jesus and the early disciples do not always rely on the Gospel narratives to transmit historical information. Being post-Enlightenment minds (leaving aside the disturbing frequency with which I see anti-Enlightenment sentiments expressed among scholars, and not only biblical ones) we tend to rationalize and “naturalize” the claims of the miraculous.

Just as once Old Testament scholars would look for shallow waters or earthquake activity to explain Moses’ miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, or seek out evidence of Mesopotamian flooding to explain the story of Noah’s ark, so we have studies into psychological and mystical proclivities to explain the resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ. read more »

How many stories in the gospels are “purely metaphorical”?

Resurrection: Son of God Jesus triumphs over d...
Image via Wikipedia

Dale Allison concludes his book Constructing Jesus with a discussion of the intent of the gospel authors. Did the gospel authors themselves think that they were writing real history or did they think they were writing metaphorical narratives, parables or allegories?

Allison refers to Marcus Borg and others (e.g. Robert Gundry, John Dominic Crossan, Robert J. Miller, Jerome Murphy O’Connor, John Shelby Spong, Roger David Aus) who have gone beyond their scholarly predecessors for whom the question was, “They thought they wrote history but can we believe them?”, to “Did they think they were writing something other than history and have we misunderstood them?”

They are not claiming that we must, because of modern knowledge, reinterpret the old texts in new ways, against their authors’ original intentions. They are instead contending that the texts were not intended to be understood literally in the first place. (p. 438)

I would love to read the books Allison cites but till then will have to rely here on his brief remarks.

Of O’Connor, Allison informs readers that he reasons that Luke’s two accounts of the ascension of Jesus are different because Luke did not think he was writing history (The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (4th ed., 1998)). read more »

Does Crossan think McGrath is an unethical historian?

The Unexplained Book Release Poster
Image by Gregory Branson-Trent via Flickr

James McGrath, biblical scholar, historian and Christian, has written that historical studies of Jesus cannot explain what happened that gave rise among early Christians to the belief in the resurrection. Whatever they experienced — and clearly he believes the evidence confirms that they certainly experienced something unusual — is beyond the ability of history to explain. The reason is, simply, that history deals with “the ordinary” (to use McGrath’s words), and the resurrection is not an ordinary event.

Result: Historians must simply not touch this topic of the resurrection. They cannot. It is left to be a mystery. One of the unexplained or unanswered questions historians so often have to face. McGrath in blog comments has literally insisted that this “inexplicable” is no different from a host of other questions historians in any field cannot answer! I suggest that historians in other fields do not construct models that can only be explained by a miracle.

One might say that his is a bit like wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too. One tries to sound like a “man of the world” for whatever reasons, and to prove to others that one is a “man of the world”, but at the same time one secretly believes that one is really a part of another world.

But John Dominic Crossan has written that this approach (and McGrath is representative in this of very many of his peers, I am sure) is unethical. Before citing Crossan, here are McGrath’s words from The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith read more »