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The Jesus Inquest
The Case for and Against the Resurrection of the Christ
By Charles Foster
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Charles Foster
All rights reserved.
DOES ALL THIS MATTER?
"The jar was not unusual. Like the cistern itself, it was of a kind common to the period, used for storing olives or grain, with a wide neck and a tapered stem. It was too large to have been used to draw water from the cistern.... Mordecai held the lamp, while Ya'acov and Asher separated the two halves of the broken jar, lifting one off the other like the lid from a box. Dagan crouched to examine the skeleton. 'How curious,' he said. He took a magnifying glass from his pocket and looked more closely. Ya'acov, Mordecai and Asher watched in silence. Then the professor glanced up, his face pale. 'We must touch nothing,' he said. 'Leave everything exactly as it is. We must have a witness to this, another archaeologist—someone, above all, who is not a Jew.'"PIERS PAUL READ, On the Third Day
"If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile ..."ST. PAUL, First Letter to the Corinthians, 15:17
The fact that you've opened this book suggests that you think that this resurrection business might matter. X and Y certainly think it does. If tomorrow's paper says that the bones of Jesus have been found, Y will be in despair. Indeed, X will say that they were discovered in 1980 in a first-century tomb in south Jerusalem, and that the despair should have begun.
X thinks that the resurrection is the most monstrous hoax ever perpetrated, or the most ridiculous fairy story ever to have been believed. He thinks, too, that the consequences of belief in that hoax or that fairy story have been catastrophic. He points (rather unoriginally, thinks Y) to the long history of anti-Semitism, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the hideous theocracy of Calvin's Geneva, the agony of the Catholics under Elizabeth and the agony of the Protestants under Mary, the sectarian hatred of Belfast, the "God Hates Fags" Web site, and to the sheer, life-denying joylessness of much of Christian culture. "Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean," wrote Swinburne, "The world has grown grey with thy breath." And red, X would add. X notes that with that addition, Swinburne was, for much of the Western world up to now, absolutely right. And he is still right about some of it—notably a big part of the U.S., whose belief in the resurrection of a Jewish medicine man, nailed to a piece of wood in the first century, seems apparently and bizarrely to suggest that there is a moral mandate to electrocute mentally subnormal criminals and bomb the living daylights out of a distant part of Mesopotamia. X regrets too that the Pale Galilean seems to have engendered in the world such a taste for repression, bigotry, and faction that when his stranglehold is released, others more sinister than he is move in unopposed to take over.
Y agrees with much of this. He can offer neither defense nor excuse for the obscenities committed in the name of the itinerant Jew he worships. He agrees that if the Jew didn't rise, then Christianity is a disgusting lie. St. Paul, after all, said that if the Easter story isn't true then Christians are to be pitied more than anyone else. Not only pitied, Y might add, but denounced for their gullibility and their genocidal tendencies. But Y also says (and X agrees) that if the Jew did rise, then the world changed dramatically on that first Easter Sunday.
Both X and Y agree, then, that this is a worthwhile debate. Whether Jesus rose or not isn't affected by the brutality, chauvinism, or downright tediousness of his followers through the ages. It's a matter of mere history: the fact or fallacy of the resurrection is in the same class of alleged facts as the contention that the battle of Agincourt was fought in 1415, or that I caught the 0856 train this morning. And so it is subject to the same sort of historical inquiry.
There is one caveat, though. We know that battles are sometimes fought and that people sometimes do catch trains. We don't know that men who are dead and buried sometimes rise. In fact, it is the Christian contention that they don't. The Christians say that it happened only once. If it happened more than once—if it was merely extremely rare instead of wholly unique—Christianity would have been shown simply to be wrong. We should then turn the cathedrals into bingo halls and the mission stations into brothels.
All this must have an effect on the way we approach the evidence. It must mean that we should prefer natural explanations to supernatural ones. Put another way, the burden of proving this wholly extraordinary event must be on the shoulders of the Christians. But it also means that X won't be so stupid as to say, "This didn't happen because these sort of things don't happen." If that's the starting point, it is also the ending point. Discussion is doomed. This might sound obvious, but it has often dogged academic discourse. Here is Gerd Ludemann dismissing the Ascension:
As a rule in such a case we did not ask the historical question. In this particular case let me hasten to add that any historical element behind this scene and/or behind Acts 1:9–11 must be ruled out because there is no such heaven to which Jesus may have been carried.
You can't begin to debate with an opponent like that.
There is a lot of ground to cover. We need to go deep into the characters of the people at the center of the drama; we need to know quite a lot about first-century Jewish burial practices and about the controversies that dogged the early church. We need to know a bit of Greek and some archaeology. We need to know whether that difficult, turbulent man Paul was a poet, a theologian, a soapbox orator, or a psychotic. But first we need to know something about the basic documents.CHAPTER 2
"To be still searching what we know not by what we know, still closing up truth to truth as we find it (for all her body is homogeneal and proportional), this is the golden rule in theology as well as in arithmetic." MILTON, Areopagitica
This chapter contains three sections. It starts off by presenting the points on which X and Y agree. Then X outlines his position, and Y follows.
X and Y: An agreed statement
We disagree on quite enough. There is no point in squabbling where we don't have to. We will get on quicker and more coherently if we state our agreement about the sources we will be using. What follows is a statement of the broad consensus of biblical scholarship. Not everyone will agree with all of it. Some will disagree with most of it.
The canonical Gospels and Acts
The canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were probably written in the first century AD. The general trend over the last half-century has been to push the dates of composition backward. It would have been a hallmark of dangerous fundamentalism for a scholar in the first half of the twentieth century to assert that John was first century. Now it would be rather eccentric not to assert it. Most people would opt for a date for John some time in the period of 80–100.
The order of writing
Most agree, too, that Mark is the first in time. The date is much disputed. Most critical scholars put it in the period of 65–75. Conservatives argue for an earlier date. Matthew and Luke follow; the order in which they follow is contentious. There is general agreement that they were written some time between about 70 and 90.
The relationship between the Gospels
People spend their lives talking about the relationship between the Gospels. We cannot begin to do justice to the complexity of the arguments. But probably it went something like this: Mark was first. He may or may not have had some pre-Markan passion narrative on his desk. Matthew and Luke had Mark. They also had a bundle of sayings (rather than doings) of Jesus. That bundle is known cryptically as "Q." But in addition to this, Matthew had something that Luke did not have, and Luke had something that Matthew did not have. What those somethings were is again the subject of bitter and learned argument. They might have been documents; they might have been personal memory; they might have been oral tradition.
Then there is John. He seems to have taken his own line across country. Some would say that he'd had a look at some of the earlier Gospels, but if he had, he doesn't seem to have had them in front of him when he wrote. Perhaps he had seen them long before or had them summarized to him by a secretary. His chronology is different from that of the synoptic writers, and he is much more Jerusalem-centric.
Look at any table comparing the contents of the Synoptic Gospels with those of John. At first blush they look (at least until you get to the very end) like biographies of different men. On second blush they are clearly not, but the question remains: why do they look so different? We don't know. Theories abound. Perhaps John knew what the others had written and was simply plugging the gaps.
He makes no bones about his purpose in writing his gospel: it is written "so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name." This is disarming frankness. X will suggest later that it is artfully disarming. But it might indicate why John differs so much from the others. His theological agenda is in some ways different. Perhaps he is merely picking out from the mass of material available to him (he acknowledges that he cannot include it all—there's far too much) the best vehicles for his theological points.
Who wrote the Gospels?
We have used "Matthew," "Mark," "Luke," and "John" as if those are the names of the authors. There is no agreement about this. The identity of the authors does not matter for now. Three things are important: first, the quality of the information upon which the accounts were based; second, the extent to which the author's own theological or other agenda intrudes into the storytelling; and third, what later editors have done with the basic account. These three issues mark out the battleground for many of the later spats between X and Y.
Although we cannot agree about authorship, we can summarize the various mainstream positions that are held.
From the end of the first century, the tradition was that Mark (whoever he was) was the companion and scribe of the apostle Peter. There is no convincing reason to doubt this—or at least to doubt that Peter was the source of many of the traditions recorded in the gospel. X would say that there is no very convincing reason, apart from the tradition, to believe it either. Y would say that the gospel is full of the sort of details that come from eyewitnesses and no one else, but concedes that this says nothing about the identity of the eyewitness.
The early Christians thought that the author of Matthew's gospel was the apostle Matthew, the tax collector. This is unlikely. If he had been an eyewitness himself, he would presumably not have relied as heavily on Mark as he does.
Why is Matthew credited with the gospel? Perhaps because he was the source of some of the other material in the gospel that doesn't come from Mark. Matthew may be Q. The issue doesn't matter much for our inquiry, since we are interested in events, not sayings. Q doesn't intrude into the death and resurrection accounts.
Luke was a non-Jew who knew Paul. He makes several appearances in Paul's letters. He was not one of the apostles. Acts (which is a very important document in the resurrection debate) is just Luke Part Two. The gospel and the book of Acts are dedicated to someone called Theophilus—presumably some sort of patron of Luke.5 We know nothing at all about Theophilus.
Luke boasts about the diligence of his research and the excellence of his sources:
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
Whether the boast was justified is contentious.
And then there is John. To mention his name is to disturb a nest of virulently poisonous theological hornets. Their numbers and the sound of their buzzing make it difficult to keep perspective. They have settled quite a bit over the last quarter of a century, though.
The second-century church thought that the gospel was written by the apostle John, somewhere in Asia, when he was a very old man. The gospel itself does not say who wrote it. But it does talk about "a disciple whom Jesus loved" and says that this disciple was involved in some way in writing the gospel. Talking about the flow of blood and water from Jesus' side, the gospel notes as an aside, "(He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth)." And right at the end: "[The beloved disciple] is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true." This last sentence is a teaser: the disciple has "written" these things in some sense, it says, but "we" (presumably the physical writer?) know that he's telling the truth. Whoever the disciple was, he is clearly saying that he was an eyewitness. Perhaps sitting old, arthritic, and blind in Ephesus, he was dictating his reminiscences to a scribe.
John, too, is a book to which something has clearly been added. Chapter 21 (which puts the risen Jesus in Galilee, doing some very interesting things) was obviously tacked on later. Chapter 20 ends: "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name." Curtain down, you'd have thought. But no, it goes up again straightaway for the final scene, only to end twenty-five verses later with another grand and rather similar peroration.
X, of course, will contend that this is suspicious. The activities of Jesus in chapter 21 are too blatantly symbolic to be real, he will say. The author is making theological and political points. We can't conclude from chapter 21 that the risen Jesus was ever seen in Galilee at all. Y, of course, disagrees. But that's beside the point for the moment. The consensus of scholarship is that there is no reason to suppose that the author of chapter 21 is not also the author of the rest of the gospel. The style's the same, chapter 21 contains no obvious anachronisms, and the clumsy tacking-on of chapter 21 is incompatible with a sinister intent to mislead.
The Gospel of Peter
The discovery of this strange document is itself a great story. The gospel of Peter is mentioned by some of the early church fathers but was thought to be completely lost. Then, around 1886, a monk's grave in Upper Egypt was dug up. In it was part of the gospel. And then, in 1972, it was realized that two bits of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri came from the same book. It was then possible to put together what we have today. (A translation of the relevant parts is in Appendix 4.) It is generally thought to have been written in the second century AD; specifically when in the second century is discussed greatly and inconclusively.
The overwhelming majority of biblical scholars reckon that Peter is a late, legendary encrustation on the canonical gospel stories. But a few (and notably John Dominic Crossan) think that they can identify a very early strand in Peter (which Crossan calls the Cross gospel) upon which the canonical gospel writers relied. Since Crossan is very much out on a limb, his very technical arguments from the Gospel of Peter do not feature further in this book. The gospel itself is mentioned further, by both X and Y, to make various rhetorical points.
New Testament letters
Paul's letters are important to this debate. Three of them are particularly important.
First Thessalonians, generally thought to be the first of Paul's surviving letters (and indeed the earliest of the documents in the New Testament), is usually dated at around AD 50–51. First Corinthians 15 contains the earliest written assertions about the historicity of the resurrection that we have. A lot of the argument in this book will center on it. Most authorities date it at around AD 54—significantly before the date that most people would give to all the Gospels. And then there is Romans—probably from about AD 56–57. There is no significant dispute about the Pauline authorship of these three documents.
Excerpted from The Jesus Inquest by Charles Foster. Copyright © 2010 Charles Foster. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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