Cracked argument, rhetorical questions and women witnesses at the tomb

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by Neil Godfrey

A wisdom-pearl in Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea reminded me of a host of gossamer arguments regularly touted by fundamenatists (not only Christian or religious fundamentalists, either).

I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (p. 178)

Rhetorical questions used to paper over cracked arguments – yes, so often.

A popular argument in favour of the resurrection of Jesus goes like this:

A . . . problem for a made-up resurrection account is that the allegedly made up story relies on the presence of women witnesses at its start. In this culture females could not be witnesses. If one were making up this story, why would one create it with women as witnesses? The key role of women in the account suggests the women are there because the women were there at the start, not that the resurrection was made up. (Bock, 2006: p. 150)

N.T. Wright is a little more subtle (?) by embedding his rhetorical question in a barrage of rhetorical assertions.

Even if we suppose that Mark made up most of his material . . . it will not do to have him, or anyone else . . . making up a would-be apologetic legend about an empty tomb and having women be the ones who find it. The point has been repeated over and over in scholarship, but its full impact has not always been felt: women were simply not acceptable as legal witnesses. . . . The debate between Origen and Celsus shows that critics of Christianity could seize on the story of the women in order to scoff at the whole tale; were the legend-writers really so ignorant of the likely reaction? If they could have invented stories of fine, upstanding, reliable male witnesses being the first a the tomb, they would have done it. That they did not tells us either that everyone in the early church knew that the women, led by Mary Magdalene, were in fact the first on the scene, or that the early church was not so inventive as critics have routinely imagined, or both. Would the other evangelists have been so slavishly foolish as to copy the story unless they were convinced that, despite being an apologetic liability, it was historically trustworthy? (Wright, 2003: p. 607)

One might construe Wright’s reference in this context to the debate between Origen and Celsus as a little bit mischievous. Wright is discussing the empty tomb so his citation of Celsus reads as if this ancient sceptic attempted to refute the empty tomb story on the basis of its reliance on women witnesses. But Celsus nowhere critiques the empty tomb story on this basis at all. His critique in relation to the women as witnesses has to do with their claim to have seen the resurrected Jesus:

Speaking next of the statements in the Gospels, that after His resurrection He showed the marks of His punishment, and how His hands had been pierced, he asks, “Who beheld this?” And discrediting the narrative of Mary Magdalene, who is related to have seen Him, he replies, “A half-frantic woman, as you state.” (Contra Celsus, Book II, ch. 59)

Celsus’ critique of the empty tomb story was based on a comparison with pagan claims for the tomb of Jupiter on the isle of Crete (Contra Celsus, Book III, chapter 43).

It is worth comparing the billowing rhetoric of these “arguments” with the facts of the text they claim to be supporting.

Darrell Bock writes (and N.T. Wright strongly implies) that the resurrection account “relies on the presence of women at its start”. If by “resurrection account” he means the canonical narratives, then it is true that each of these speaks of women being the first at the tomb. But if he means the evidence for the resurrection itself, the women play no direct role at all. The women witnesses are – as per the rhetorical assertions – not believed by the men.

In Mark’s gospel, which rightly ends at 16:8, they do not even tell anyone what they had seen.

In Matthew’s gospel there is no account of the women reporting anything to the disciples – a strange oversight if the proof of the resurrection “relied” on their witness. Rather, this gospel informs the reader that the tomb guards reported what had happened to the chief priests, and implies that the chief priests believed the account of the resurrection. Next, the disciples themselves witness the resurrected Jesus. By inference the reader understands that Christianity began as a direct result of this appearance of Jesus to the disciples. The story of the women being the first to witness Jesus serves as little more than a nice message to assure the world that the new religion has a special place for women as well as the men.

Again according to Luke’s gospel, the women are far from necessary for belief in the resurrection. No-one believes the women (Luke 24:11, 25, 37-38). Jesus has to appear in person to convince the disciples and start the church.

Finally in John’s gospel, only one (unnamed) male disciple believes, and he does so only after he sees the empty tomb for himself (John 20:8).

In all gospels the apostolic founders of Christianity believed in the ressurrection because they had personally witnessed the resurrected Jesus. In all gospels the women were disbelieved or there is no narrative about their informing the male disciples at all.

When I was in Sunday school I learned that the reason Jesus appeared first to women after his resurrection was to offer them some sort of affirmative action or positive discrimination to undo their hitherto subservient place in society.

If the women witnesses were not even believed in the story there can be little basis to the assertion that their witness is central to belief in the resurrection as a fact of history.


Resurrection: bodily ambiguities (response to Wright 3)

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by Neil Godfrey

Darn it. I mixed up the numbering of my response to Wright series and left out “3”. So let this one be #3, even if it’s only an indirect response.

The gospels failed to settle the argument

The mere fact that John’s gospel presents Jesus as a palpable body, one that could be felt by Thomas, did not necessarily “prove” to ancient readers that Jesus was physical flesh and blood. I listed some of the different accounts of spirits in my previous (#5 response) post that showed they could in several cases eat and drink, wear clothes, touch and be touched, etc.

In the gospel of Luke the author chose to have Jesus explain to his disciples that a spirit does not have flesh and bones, “as you see that I have”. Yet the Greek word for “have” can also have the sense of “be” or “am”. Accordingly Marcionite Christians read this passage to mean that Jesus was telling his disciples to touch him and see that he really was a spirit body, without physical flesh and bones. Riley (1995) p.65 citing Tertullian, Adv. Marc. 4.43.7

The different meanings of “body”

Yet it is also true that many ancients found the idea absolutely repulsive that very same flesh and blood which one had inhabited before death would be reinhabited after death. Many of us today are probably more sheltered from the reality of death than were many who lived in earlier days, and the ugly reality that this idea suggested probably sprang to mind more naturally than it does for some of us. So how did the early Christians interpret the gospel narratives of Jesus appearing in a recognizable “body“?

Before looking at different Christian views, a look at how pagans among whom they lived used the word:

Virgil used the word “corpora” (the equivalent of the Greek σωμα), what we would take for a corporeal body, to refer to dead souls in the Aeneid VI, 303-308. Describing the people in or entering into Hades (and Latin specialists kindly excuse my schoolboy level attempts at translation):

[Charon] . . . ferruginea subvectat corpora cymba,
matres atque viri, defunctaque corpora vita
magnanimum heroum, pueri innuptaeque puellae
impositique rogis iuvenes ante ora parentum:

[Charon] carries over the bodies in his reddish-dark boat
mothers and men, deceased (yet) living bodies
great hearted heroes, boys and unmarried girls
youths placed on funeral pyres before their parents’ eyes

Of course it would be preferable for us to translate ‘corpora’ as ‘souls’ in this context given our cultural understanding of what is meant. The point is the word for “body” (Latin corpora or Greek soma) can be understood in ancient parlance as a synonym for “soul” or “spirit” or “ghost”.

Wright (p.43) dismisses Virgil’s use of “corpora” to describe the dead as “occasional”, and in fact irrelevant to his argument because to Virgil these bodies were without their former power and strength, and are elsewhere described as mere shadowy forms. He misses the point. Even “mere shadowy forms” were still “bodies” in the ancient schema.

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:44 of our bodies:

It is sown a soulish body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a soulish body, and there is a spiritual body.

σπειρεται σωμα ψυχικον, εγειρεται σωμα πνευματικον ει εστιν σωμα ψυχικον και πνευματικον

English Bibles usually translate the word ψυχικον “natural” or “physical”. The Latin equivalent would be “animale”. It refers to the essence that “animates” the body, “the animating life sustaining force in man and animals”. It is the root of our word “psychic”. Paul here contrasts it with the “spiritual” or “pneumatic” body. Stong’s Concordance contrasts it with “spiritual/pneumatic” above and “physical/phusikos” below, which pertained to the animals.

Gregory Riley, Resurrection Reconsidered, p.62f, writes that unless the original passage is translated “soulish body” readers will miss the focus of the ancient arguments over the verse’s interpretation. Tertullian debated with other Christians who interpreted 1 Cor.15:44 to mean that it was the “soul” that was called the “soulish body” and that it was this soul (soulish body) that was resurrected, while the flesh remained behind in decay. The soulish body (soul) was said to be changed to a spiritual body when it was filled with the spirit at the resurrection.

Unfortunately for Tertullian he had one arm tied behind his back in his debate. Both he and his opponents accepted the belief that the soul was itself a corporeal substance. Otherwise it could not be tormented with physical pain in hell. (Riley, p.62)

We know from Paul, Polycarp, Justin, Tertullian and Origen that many Christians did indeed believe that the physical body was not resurrected, or that the resurrection pertained to “the soulish body”. To counter this widespread “heresy” church fathers like Irenaeus and Athenagoras put themselves through intellectual contortions to explain how a physical body could simultaneously be a spiritual body when resurrected. Irenaeus “explained” that the fleshly body was a spiritual body by virtue of being possessed by the Spirit. Athenagoras was even “clearer”: while we have flesh, it will not seem as if we have flesh, because we shall be heavenly spirits. (Adv. Haer. 5.7.2 and Legatio 31 in Riley, p.64)


That the word “body” and the term “resurrection of the body” ramained ambiguous into the fifth century, capable of being interpreted either as “flesh” or “spirit-soul”, we have the complaint of Jerome:

We believe, say they, in the resurrection of the body. This confession, if only it be sincere, is free from objection. But as there are bodies celestial and bodies terrestrial and as thin air and the æther are both according to their natures called bodies, they use the word body instead of the word flesh in order that an orthodox person hearing them say body may take them to mean flesh while a heretic will understand that they mean spirit.

He wanted them to use the unambiguous expression “resurrection of the flesh”.

The resurrection of the body, bodily resurrection, was not so black and white a concept when Christianity was born and established itself as it is to many Christians today.


Resurrection: response to Wright’s arguments, 5

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by Neil Godfrey

apols for posting this before serious proof-reading — ongoing editing under way . . . (9th May)

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. One more to go:

  • 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

One reason Jesus does not appear as anything other than a normal human after his resurrection in two of the gospels is because these gospels reflect the popular literature of the period by concluding with a series of dramatic recognition scenes at the end of their stories. It was a popular trope for novelists to conclude their stories of adventure with their long lost (and thought to be dead) hero appearing at the end, with his or her associates only gradually come to recognize their loved one through a series of recognition scenes. Homer’s Odysseus was only recognized by his former nurse when she, like Thomas in the gospel, placed her hands in his old wounds. But the pattern is repeated many times in other popular literature, too.

Luke does this first with the unrecognized and then flash in the pan appearance with the Emmaus disciples; and then finally in full bodily presence before the rest of the disciples. But even then they need to be shown ways to prove that it really is Jesus. Ditto in the gospel of John. Mary does not recognize him at first. It takes time and the speaking of her name before she can. Again Jesus has to show them the clues (his wounds) to prove that he really is Jesus. Scars, birthmarks, wounds were common clues to eventually identify the long lost hero in popular stories.

Another reason is specific to Luke’s gospel. Luke is using his narrative to address (counter) the claims of docetic views that rejected the humanity/fleshiness of Jesus. This is evident from the earliest chapters when he traced Jesus’ genealogy right back to Adam, the first human. Luke’s Jesus contrasts a spirit body with a body of flesh and bones. John’s Jesus does not make this contrast, but only shows his body, with its wounds, to identify himself as their earlier leader, Jesus himself, who has come back from the dead. This was discussed in my second post in this series. Additional novelistic motifs in the gospel of John were discussed previously in yet another post.

The fact that two of the gospels describe Jesus as appearing like a mortal after his resurrection is consistent with the novelistic or storytelling motifs and theological interests that shaped their authors’ world.

The gospel of Mark had no resurrection appearance. A missing corpse was another way for ancient literature to alert readers to a resurrection of some sort. Matthew’s gospel does not describe his appearance or body at all.

Wright argues that if the gospel authors made up the story of Jesus being resurrected from the dead they would not have told it the way they did. In fact, this appears to be a regular argument of Wright’s. If it were not true, they would not have written it like that. One is tempted to respond that such an argument really testifies to Wright’s lack of imagination or diligence in seeking to understand, through natural (as opposed to supernatural) scholarly constructs, the texts as we have them. A miracle, he concludes, offers the best “explanatory power” for the origins of Christianity. I suspect he can only get away with such claims because of the “force field” effect of writing hundreds and hundreds of pages alluding to scholarly arguments. The sheer weight of the reading may well bludgeon some less familiar with the arguments into assuming all these pages must really knock natural explanations for the rise of Christianity on the head. The purpose of this mini-series of posts is to expose the emptiness of just a few of the points Wright makes in the midst of his pages of digressions and elaborations of colour and multitudes of footnotes.

Wright claims that if the gospel authors made up the story of Jesus’ resurrection appearances they would have described him more like a shining star, a figure of glorified splendour like the angelic and worship-worthy figures in the Book of Daniel.

So Wright’s argument is based on his ability to read the minds of the authors. No matter that the many ancient authors who did describe living re-appearances of the dead described them as having the same appearance as when they were alive. Wright is confident that the biblical authors would never have written about the living appearances of the dead the way nonbiblical authors did. The nonbiblical authors wrote fiction, so if the biblical authors did write anything resembling pagan depictions of the living-dead, it must be because they were recording facts, and not fiction.

But, Wright argues, they did not write anything truly resembling pagan depictions of the dead-now-appearing-to-be-living, because the pagan bodies did not fit the same description of Jesus’ body. Even though both the pagan bodies and Jesus’ body could pass through material objects, could speak and eat, wear clothes and display their wounds, feel human emotions and care for the living, even (in at least one famous pagan story) be returned to flesh and blood bodily life, Wright insists there can be no legitimate comparison.

One reason he gives is that educated ancients did not believe in the historical truth of their stories. Well, yes, need one even have to raise the obvious? They didn’t believe the Christian story either!

Another reason he gives is that despite some similarities between the pagan and biblical narratives, there are also some differences. Well, there are differences among the various pagan stories, too. Without differences there would only be one story, not lots — by definition we could never have many stories around this idea unless there were differences. Here are some of the variations:

  1. Most remain as shadowy bodies unable to be grasped (Aeneid, Odyssey) — the gospel of Luke is possibly attempting to go one better and set Jesus apart from these by having him demonstrate his flesh bones body-ness (even though he can still go through walls)
  2. But even pagans had stories of their exceptions who indeed did return from dead in their physical flesh and blood bodies (Alcestis) — Wright says there is no comparison with Jesus here because Jesus was to live forever and Alcestis died again. Of course this is special pleading. The fact is that there is a direct comparison to be made, regardless of the subsequent fates of the characters.
  3. Others cower in fear at material swords (Odysseus holding the dead at bay with his sword)
  4. Others take no notice of swords (Aeneas is told he is wasting his time using his sword)
  5. Some can only scream in whispers
  6. And others can speak quite normally
  7. Most appear just as they did when alive
  8. Yet others can or do appear as another person entirely (Astrabacus appeared as Ariston)
  9. One ancient historian, Herodotus, even recorded an account of a dead hero, Astrabacus, returning to embrace and have sex with a living woman, and leave behind a part of his head-gear as a momento of the event. And there was a time when Romans sacrificed young girls so their souls could serve dead soldiers sexually.
  10. Some wrote that the dead were brought back up from Hades (Hercules rescued Alcestis)
  11. One ancient theologian wrote that Jesus went down to Hades to preach to the spirits and then returned with escorting angels to go up to heaven (The Gospel of Peter)
  12. Another wrote that some were raised by a word, others by a touch, others after some days in a tomb, one by touching the bones of a dead prophet, another after three rounds of body to body massage. (The various old and new testament biblical stories)
  13. Some wrote that many were persuaded that the dead reappeared to a mortal witness at dawn, and commanded that witness to go and report to others (Romulus, Jesus)
  14. Some departed dead reappeared in recognizable form with their first words being, “Peace, Take courage, Don’t be afraid.” (Scipio Africanus, Jesus)
  15. The dead would reappear to pass on instructions to the living (Romulus, Scipio, Patroclus, Samuel, Jesus)
  16. Many of them showed off their mortal wounds (Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Hector, Jesus)

The variations we see in the Jesus narrative are all part and parcel of the constellation of mutations of the same basic idea. To make a special case for the unique features of just one of the above characters is pedantic nonsense and special pleading.

Virgil, Euripides, Herodotus and Homer speak of the dead, though “spirit”, still having the form and even feelings of their fleshly bodies. They wore clothes, they could eat and drink, they could play board games, they could inflict pain and death with weapons and their hands on the living, they could feel pain and be seriously threatened by the swords of the living, and they could even have sex both with each other and the living. (See Gregory Riley, Resurrection Reconsidered, p.50ff)

The fact that Jesus is depicted by one or two of the evangelists as having a palpable as opposed to shadowy body is not a common portrayal of the returned dead, but it is not unique either.

Virgil argued with Homer over the latter’s portrayal of Odysseus being able to hold departed souls at bay with his sword. Virgil said that was a nonsense in his Aeneid. Aeneas was reminded by his companions that was silly to even try to threaten souls that way. In a similar dialogue with other narratives, Luke and perhaps John, decided to prove that their resurrected hero surpassed the pagan dead by being touchable — without stinking or looking like a zombie (if indeed the authors really did imagine him truly physical — not all early Christians interpreted Luke’s gospel that way) — yet still with all the other attributes of spirit (being able to pass through walls, turn invisible, live forever and travel to heaven).


By narrating a reappearance of Jesus after his death in a bodily form the evangelists are not struck by historical reality, but merely following the conventions of the times.


Resurrection: Response to Wright, 4

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by Neil Godfrey

Revised May 8 2008

Continuing from a 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. Two more to go:

  • 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

Textual and narrative interdependence

(Following I use Matthew and Mark interchangeably as both the authors of the gospels and as the titles of the gospels attributed to them.)

Matthew clearly used (either copying directly or re-writing) the narrative of Mark. It is said that Matthew repeats about 600 of Mark’s 661 verses. Mark has no resurrection appearance, but that does not hide the fact that Matthew’s resurrection appearance scenes grew out of Matthew’s use and knowledge of Mark.

How Matthew built on Mark’s narrative for the resurrection appearances:

Mark created a narrative in which:

  • Jesus was reported as arranging to see his disciples, after his resurrection, in Galilee.
  • This message was conveyed through a mysterious “young man”,
  • who instructed the women at the tomb to pass it on to the disciples.
  • These women had come to anoint the corpse of Jesus even though it belatedly dawned on them that they would not be able to enter the tomb with its massive stone obstructing its entrance.
  • And when these women heard the message from the young man, they were said to have run off immediately without even telling the disciples after all.
  • They were said to have been too fearful to say a word to anyone. And that is where the original text of Mark’s gospel ends.
  • See Mark 16:1-8.

Matthew then, after reading Mark, wrote a revised narrative:

  • Like Mark, he wrote that Jesus would see his disciples, after his resurrection, in Galilee.
  • But this message was made more authoritative by being conveyed, not by a mere young man whom readers might wonder if he was an angel or not, but by an unambiguous angel who came down from heaven and with superstrength rolled aside the massive stone from the tomb’s entrance
  • As in Mark, this angel instructed the women to pass the message on to the disciples
  • But Mark’s nonsense of the women coming to anoint a body when they knew they could not enter the tomb is removed by Matthew. Matthew re-writes the more sensible account that the women merely came to see the tomb.
  • And when these women heard the message from the angel, they were said to have run off immediately — just as Mark also said —
  • but unlike Mark’s account, they ran off to tell the disciples after all. Matthew had added to Mark’s Fear the emotion of “great Joy” to drive the women to break through the silence barrier and not remain silent after all.
  • See Matthew 28:1-8.

So Matthew followed Mark’s script with a few modifications up to verse 8. At the critical verse 8 (not that the original gospels were written in our verse numberings of course) Matthew essentially copied Mark’s final verse but added a twist to it. The women ran off not only with Mark’s fear, but with fear tinged with a dash of joy. And, contra Mark, they ran off to tell the disciples, as commanded by the angel.

But having twisted Mark’s tail thus, how was Matthew to narrate that meeting? Mark’s original gospel ended at verse 8. The closest Mark offered for a resurrection appearance was the account in an earlier chapter of Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountain.

Matthew began by having Jesus make his first resurrection appearance to the women mourners who had come to see his tomb. But he was clearly floundering. He had no model on which to draw. Only Mark’s narrative where the young man had told the women that the disciples could see Jesus in Galilee. So what does Matthew narrate? Matthew’s Jesus zaps down to the women as they flee from the tomb. The women stop, look and listen. Even hold Jesus by the feet. And Jesus proceeds to utter his first words as a resurrected saviour. They are verbatim what Mark’s young man and Matthew’s angel had already told the women. “Go and tell my disciples they can see me in Galilee.” Yes. We have read that already. Matthew is clearly at a loss here. He is floundering when left to his own imagination.

Next, Matthew finally has that long awaited contact between the disciples and Jesus in Galilee. Again Matthew’s creative imagination is limited. The best he can offer readers is a Moses-like departure on a mountain top. He charges his successors to carry on the good work, just as Moses charged his successor Joshua to do likewise. And it is all done on a mountain top — the same topography where Jesus had earlier been transfigured, and where Moses spent his final moments.

Matthew is grasping at his bland unimaginative straws. All he knew was that he had to do better than end is gospel the same way Mark had ended his. If Mark had more subtle themes to convey with his ending of the women fleeing dumb in fear, they were wasted on Matthew. Matthew re-wrote Mark to give it a more positive ending:

  • The women were not so stupid as to come to the tomb to anoint a body when they knew they couldn’t enter the tomb. They came to just visit the tomb, as mourners do.
  • No mysterious “young man” was there to deliver a message to these women. None other than an angel came down. He was so unambiguous that the tomb guards fainted on the spot at the sight of him.
  • And the women did not run like scared, um, girls, at the sight of him, too scared to say a word to anyone. No, they ran with fear and joy to tell the disciples!

Mark and Matthew share the same characters, the same scene, the same words, the same setting and narrative point of view or vision (camera angle) of events. That last point, the camera angle, is a vital key to establishing a Matthew-Mark interdependence. Authors without any contact would most likely imagine different points of view from which to portray a common event — the mind and/or experience of one of the women, or of a disciple who saw the women, or of someone who first saw or heard from the women, etc.

Matthew owes his resurrection appearance narrative to Mark. From Mark he derived the setting and the words and the characters. When other gospel authors disagreed with both Matthew and Mark, their disagreements were on theological and literary (not eyewitness) source grounds, as already discussed.

The textual and narrative ties between the resurrection appearances in Luke and John

The narratives of the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples in Luke and John share the same structure:

  1. Jesus appearance to the disciples takes place in Jerusalem, not Galilee
  2. Jesus appears suddenly in the midst of the disciples
  3. Jesus shows his body (hands and side/feet)
  4. Disciples react with joy to the appearance
  5. Immediately after appearing to the disciples, Jesus speaks to them with identical words: “And said [historical present in both gospels] to them, ‘Peace with you'”
  6. At the appearance Jesus presents his body as a verification [– verification that he is risen, in Luke who may well have been expressing an anti-docetic or anti-Marcionite agenda here; verification that he is indeed Jesus, in John –] and uses very similar wording: “When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet” in Luke; “When he had said this, he showed them his hands and side” in John.
  7. In both gospels the authors are said to be in fear. In Luke, however, it is fear that they are seeing a ghost when they see Jesus; in the more anti-semitic John, they are hiding in fear of the Jews.
  8. Both gospels speak of the disbelief of the disciples. In John the disbelief is a theological issue, and is packed into his discussion of Thomas and the need of all believers to have faith; in Luke, with a different theological agenda, the disbelief is a narrative colouring — they were confused when they saw unexpectedly Jesus, and finally were so overcome with joy that they could scarcely believe that what they were seeing was really happening.

(Adapted, with significant modification of point 6, from Matson’s In Dialogue With Another Gospel (pp. 422-424)

Matson discusses many more verbal and stylistic similarities between Luke and John’s resurrection appearance accounts.

Written sources for the Emmaus narrative in Luke

I have already discussed Luke’s use of Genesis and Judges in his construction of the Emmaus Road encounter with the resurrected Jesus. See points 6 to 10 in the Emmaus post. What follows is adapted from Matson, pp. 410-421.

But there are other indications in the text that Luke’s Emmaus narrative has been edited from other text. (I suspect that the final redactor/author of Luke-Acts has re-worked an earlier Luke, also discussed in other posts here.) The dramatic climax of the story, when the two who had just been with Jesus run off to tell the disciples of their experience, collapses into anti-climax when they completely fail to tell of their experience and instead bring in an entirely new thought nowhere before hinted at, that Jesus had appeared to Peter. Readers are left wondering how and when that could have happened, and are also left with a bland taste in place of savouring a narrative climax.

The author of the gospel was normally capable of much better than this. Indeed, his structure of staged steps to the final appearance of Jesus demonstrates his literary competence: moving from an empty tomb and confusion, then to a meeting and confusion and a mere glimpse of recognition; and finally to the full bodily appearance before all. If this is how a Jesus really did show himself and if the narrative is read as history instead of narrative drama, it reads as if he is having a joking game of hide-and-seek before revealing his resurrected self. A bit like a playfully teasing ghost?

The (final) author has awkwardly inserted the message of the appearance to Peter into an existing narrative. He was probably attempting to give life to the claim in 1 Corinthians 15 that Peter had been the first to see Jesus. (That tradition or passage in 1 Corinthians may well be a later pastoral insertion and not original to Paul anyway. If so, this would tie in with the final redactor of Luke-Acts himself giving narrative form to several Pastoralist ideas.)

Another textual anomaly in the Emmaus account is its tension against an earlier passage where the author claimed the disciples scoffed at the reports of the women about the angels at the empty tomb (24:11). Luke 24:24 in the Emmaus story contradicts that, saying that several of the disciples did pay enough attention to the women to go and investigate. Note that this is scarcely a reference only to Peter running to the tomb. Peter ran alone in Luke. In the Emmaus narrative several of the disciples took the women seriously.

While the Emmaus narrative is woven with Lukan wording and style, the evidence suggests that Luke was struggling with an earlier written story. He did not have eyewitness reports and traditions to help him piece what he wanted to say all into a seamless whole.


So when Wright says that the different gospel accounts do not betray any textual or narrative interdependence, he is “overstating” the case. One may disagree with some of the specifics of the arguments for narrative interdependence, and dispute the interpretation of some of the above passages. But it is misleading to insist that there is no evidence for such interdependence among the gospels in their resurrection appearance accounts.

There are clear structural and verbal links between the gospels in these narratives, and where there are differences, they are readily explained by the larger theological interest of the authors.

One more post to go to finish this mini-series . . . .


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.


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.


Resurrection: more responses to Bishop Wright’s study

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I have no intention of committing myself to a chapter by chapter detailed response to Durham Bishop N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God as I did for Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, but since Wright has (at least in discussions with me) been touted as a touchstone of scholarly authority among some fundamentalists, I can’t help but make periodic observations about his tomes, if only to hopefully leave a seed in minds of some that will one day germinate genuinely independent and honest questioning. (I’ll collate my posts that have some commentary on Wright’s works in my blog’s Book Reviews and Notes category beneath the archives links.)

The so-called early-origin of the resurrection appearances “traditions”

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. His reasons include:

  • the absence of Old Testament allusions in their narratives, in contrast to the OT riddled pre-resurrection narratives in the gospels — the argument is that the use of OT allusions were proclivities of the gospel authors, but each gospel author relied on transplanting much older traditions when it came to the resurrection scenes
  • 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

These Wright arguments are by no means conclusive. They are certainly debatable, even wrong.

I’m sure more can be added to any of my comments on these below. And maybe I have missed some relevant point among Wright’s 800 pages. I’m sure someone will let me know.

Old Testament allusions in the resurrection narratives

The Gospel of Mark does not have a resurrection appearance narrative. The verses 9-20 of its final chapter are well recognized as late additions by scribes who were dissatisfied with their copies of the original all ending abruptly with the audiences’ attention directed to focus on a conclusion of silence and fear. (One might compare the conclusion of the Aeneid, even the Primary History and the Elijah-Elisha Cycle, but each of those is, well, . . . “another story”.)

The Gospel of Matthew‘s narrative of Jesus’ appearance after his resurrection is most clearly embedded in Old Testament allusion. While Dale Allison (The New Moses, A Matthean Typology) discusses the tendency of scholarship of his day to deny special Mosaic comparisons in Matthew (partly a reaction against the Straussian challenges it posed to the historicity of the gospel narrative), he nonetheless alerts us to specific stories and redaction in Matthew that demonstrably link Jesus to OT and other Jewish legendary tales about Moses. While Matthew’s gospel does not depict Jesus as a Moses figure himself, it does make use of comparisons with Moses traditions in its presentation of Jesus:

  • the circumstances of his birth, with the slaughter of the infants and his divinely orchestrated escape, is undoubtedly intended to bring comparisons with Moses to mind from the beginning of the gospel
  • redactional details (in comparison with the gospels of Mark and Luke) in Matthew’s telling of Jesus crossing the water and going into the wilderness to spend “forty days and nights” fasting
  • the Sermon on the Mount, with its overt comparisons to Mosaic law, hits many readers as a patent transvaluing of Moses delivering the law to Israel from Mount Sinai
  • Allison cites 12 points within Matthew 11:25-30 resonating with details of Moses’ unique character, and his special relationship with God and Israel
  • Jesus’ specifically transvalues details of Moses in the Matthean mountain transfiguration scene
  • Jesus’ final appearance, like that of Moses, is on a mountain (Deut. 32:48-50 — also, along with associated Jewish legends of this passage, a tie back to the temptation in the wilderness). Like Moses at his end, he commissions his successors (Deut 31:6-9); and as with the successor of Moses, the successors of Jesus are instructed to go out faithfully and are promised they will never be forsaken (Joshua 1:1-9).

The Gospel of Luke likewise draws on OT passages from which to construct at least one of its resurrection appearances. I have discussed these in an earlier post. Some of the key passages from there:

The Road to Emmaus story contains easily recognizable literary motifs associated with similar stories in Genesis and Judges . . . .

In Genesis Abraham sees three strangers on the road and exercises hospitality by inviting them in to eat with him; it emerges in the course of the narrative that the three strangers were angelic messengers, and one is even named “the Lord” (Genesis 18). Then two of those same strangers travel to Sodom where Lot has to work to persuade them to stay at his place before continuing their journey. It is late in the day, as in the Emmaus road story. He is unaware of their identity until later in the narrative (Genesis 19). Joshua also encountered a stranger he assumed was a fellow mortal at first but who went on to reveal himself as a divine being (Joshua 5:13-15).

When Jacob was travelling the sun set (early Jewish legends explained the pointed reference in Genesis 28:11 by saying God had caused it to set prematurely to force Jacob to stop there) and he had a dream that he was in the presence of God. God spoke to him there. And the name of the place was originally known as Luz — in the Septuagint it is Oulammaus. In the Codex Bezae this is the name used for Emmaus in Luke 24. In an early reading of Luke (perhaps the earliest) the Emmaus road revelation happened at the same place that Jacob dreamed he was visited by God.

In Judges we read about an unnamed woman who meets a “man of God”, but whom the audience knows is an angelic messenger. Her husband is named, Manoah, and he prays to God to send the same man again but this time “to us” — both of them. So God sent him again but only to his unnamed partner. She had to call Manoah to meet him. The couple, Manoah and his wife, press the “man of God” who speaks to them of divine promises to come in and stay with them in their house. A sacrifice is offered and the “man of God” reveals his true identity by disappearing before their eyes carried up into heaven by the flames and smoke of the sacrifice. (Judges 13)

This story in Judges contains many of the motifs used in Luke 24:

a. Two people receive a visit from a supernatural being.

b. Only one of the two persons is named. How readers would love to know the name of the both – in both stories. The authors of both are in some way playing with their readers’ curiosity. (Readers are told the names of both parties in all other stories where an angel comes to announce a special birth.)

c. The supernatural being speaks of divine plans and knowledge.

d. The couple invite this stranger to stay with them and eat.

e. A meal or sacrifice is begun.

f. Before the stranger eats he miraculously vanishes before the couple’s eyes

g. By witnessing this disappearing trick the couple are made aware of the identity of their guest

h. The couple speak to each other about their experience and what they have just seen and express their emotional responses.

Conclusion: It is at the very least by no means certain that at least the authors of Matthew and Luke did not construct huge chunks of their resurrection appearance scenes out of OT references.

These posts always take longer than I anticipate. Will have to discuss the other points later.


Resurrection and Monotheism, and an odd case for uniqueness

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Note 30th May: Currently updating my notes on Wright’s resurrection arguments here.

My previous post was a jotting down of some points I had found of interest in Martin West’s chapter explaining how the distance between monotheism and polytheism was very narrow indeed. It is not at all difficult to imagine how monotheism gradually evolved from polytheism.

Since I am currently perusing sections of Durham bishop N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, and it is impossible to avoid noticing the sharpest contrast between styles of arguments of West and Wright. Continue reading “Resurrection and Monotheism, and an odd case for uniqueness”