Saturday 28 June 2014

Doubting Jesus' Resurrection - A Review (Part 3)

After the frivolity of The Life of Brian let's get back to the more serious stuff.
In chapter 1 of Doubting Jesus' Resurrection (DJR), Komarnitsky addresses the empty tomb legend. When people read the New Testament they probably start reading the four gospels; indeed some people never get beyond them! But for those who do make it as far as Paul's letters, which are now placed in printed editions after the four gospels and indeed after Acts of the Apostles, it will already be established in their minds that Jesus was buried in a tomb that was discovered empty a few days later.

The Resurrection According to Paul
However Paul, who was writing his epistles long before the gospels were written, never mentions such a tomb, and certainly not an empty one. To be fair, he does say Jesus was buried*, and rose again, but he never says anything about his burial, whether it was in a tomb or in the ground, or whether the place that he was buried was ever found empty. Most readers, of course, won't notice this when they read Paul's epistles because they already "know" that Jesus was buried in a tomb subsequently found empty because they have already read the gospels; thus they harmonize in their minds (or their churches harmonize it for them) what Paul has to say with what the gospel writers had to say.

Komarnitsky first attends to the question of why should Paul have written about the tomb, empty or not. After all, he was writing not to set out the story of Jesus, rather he was addressing particular issues that had arisen in the churches with which he was corresponding. Komarnitsky rightly points out, though, that in 1 Corinthians the "resurrection of the body" had become just such a particular issue, and Paul spends quite some time dealing with it, using Jesus' presumed resurrection as a model in his argument. Indeed, as you read 1 Corinthians 15 and see his detailed arguments about "the resurrection of the body", both Jesus' and those who had died in Christ, "it is hard to understand why Paul did not mention a discovered empty tomb if he knew about it." (Komarnitsky's italics, chapter 1, paragraph before endnote 3).

Sometimes christian apologists try to argue that Paul does, in some undetectable way, imply the existence of an empty tomb (I remember one arguing this on the former Richard Dawkins forum which has sadly been deleted so I can no longer find our conversation). I think this kind of argument shows that these christian apologists recongnise that there is an issue here, and they want to find a way of reading into 1 Corinthians that there was an intimation of an empty tomb; I think that unwittingly they are surrendering the case that Paul's resurrection is different in this respect to the gospel writers' resurrection.

Komarnitsky picks up on some other explanations that christian apologists can give in this area, and shows how unconvincing they are. In summary (and a good one at that) he cites Geoffrey Lampe:

  If Paul and the tradition which he cites lay no emphasis on the [discovered] empty tomb the question arises whether Paul nevertheless may have known of it. Many New Testament scholars hold that he did. Certainly it would be quite unsafe in the ordinary way, to infer that he did not from the fact that he does not actually allude to it. But in this case I think the argument from silence has unusual force. For the situation in which Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15 was that some of the Corinthians were denying that there is a resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15:12). In answer to them Paul marshals every possible argument, and in particular, he adduces the known fact that Jesus was raised from the dead as the foundation for belief in the future resurrection of Christian people. If Jesus' resurrection is denied, he says, the bottom drops out of the Christian gospel. And the evidence that he raises consists in the appearances to himself and to others. Had he known that the tomb was found empty it seems inconceivable that he should not have adduced this here as a telling piece of objective evidence.
  (DJR, chapter 1 at endnote 4, citing from GWH Lampe, "Easter: A Statement" in The Resurrection, ed. William Purcell, 1996, p.43)

Paul's version of the resurrection is thus easier to argue for. He doesn't need any supernatural force to leave physical evidence like an empty tomb. His idea of the resurrection thus seems more primitive than Mark's (which is itself the most primitive of the 4 canonical gospel's resurrections). And it is to Mark's gospel that Komarnitsky turns next.

The Resurrection According to Mark
DJR presents material here that will be known to some bible-reading christians, but it is still surprising to find how many don't yet know this information. The important thing about Mark's account of the resurrection is that the gospel originally ended at chapter 16 verse 8, and everything that you read in your copy of the bible after this verse has been added by later individuals who were clearly not satisfied with the abrupt way Mark's gospel originally concluded. Almost all bible translations now indicate this piece of information in at least a footnote (check your bible version out - if it doesn't, you really shouldn't be using that translation!) and the matter has been known about for some considerable time now. It still amazes me that many bible translations continue to print verses of Mark's gospel after 16:8, and that generally only an easily-missed footnote is included which, if lucky, might catch the reader's eye to alert him/her that late material has been added.

But what is the effect of the fact that the earliest form of Mark stopped at chapter 16 verse 8? Well for one thing, although there is a discovered empty tomb in the earliest form of Mark's gospel, there are no narrated resurrection appearances.

If you were previously unfamiliar with that fact, you might need a moment for it to sink in. The earliest gospel in the bible has an empty tomb, but no account of any resurrection appearances. Sure, earlier on Mark had a prediction of a resurrection appearance (see below), but didn't think it necessary to outline what actually happened. Other people came along later and added appearances to Mark's gospel.

Note also that Mark's resurrection is the converse of Paul's in this respect:

  Paul: Empty tomb
  Appearance stories ✔︎
  Mark: Empty tomb ✔︎
  Appearance stories
That's not to say that Mark is unaware of appearance traditions. Just before he concludes his gospel he has a "young man" telling the two Marys who had come to the (empty) tomb:

  ἀλλὰ ὑπάγετε εἴπατε τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ καὶ τῷ Πέτρῳ ὅτι προάγει ὑμᾶς εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν· ἐκεῖ αὐτὸν ὄψεσθε, καθὼς εἶπεν ὑμῖν.
  But go, tell his disciples and Peter, "He is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you." (Mark 16:7)

This is a reference back to something that Mark had Jesus predict a couple of chapters earlier:

  ἀλλὰ μετὰ τὸ ἐγερθῆναί με προάξω ὑμᾶς εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν.
  But after the raising [of] me I will go before you to Galilee. (Mark 14:28)

So it could be that Mark's account of the empty-tomb-version of the resurrection was written precisely to introduce, or at least propagate, a new idea that "proves" the resurrection actually happened - i.e. testimony is drawn up (to order?) that some people saw where Jesus was buried, and that this place was empty a few days later. The tale that Jesus was actually buried has to be quite complicated - Joseph of Arimathea has to be introduced as a member of the Sanhedrin (which has just asked for Jesus to die), have him request Jesus' body and have Pilate grant it to him, all of which seems far fetched. Then women have to be introduced who watched proceedings from afar and thus know where the body is put without raising suspicion, while the disciples have, of course, all fled. All very contradictory and unlikely.

And there's another interesting aspect to Mark's tale here which Komarnitsky picks up on. The very last verse of Mark's gospel does not say that the women spread the news of what they had just seen, as per the instructions of the "young man". Instead (Mark 16:8) they were afraid and they said nothing to anyone.

Note how this fits in well with the introduction of this new empty tomb story. The invention of such a story at the time Mark was composing his gospel (generally put around 70CE) entails a problem: why did nobody previously know that there had been an empty tomb all along? Well it was because the women didn't tell anyone - you see they were afraid. Ta da!

The rest of the first chapter of DJR is devoted to examining how the other gospels took over and adapted Mark's story of the empty tomb, adding appearances of Jesus to various individuals and, in the case of Matthew, a defense against the charge that Jesus body could have been stolen from this empty tomb (well it was guarded by soldiers, you see - strange though that Mark's women - nor Luke's - didn't mention them).

The overall point of this chapter of DJR is to show that the idea that Jesus rose from the dead did not come about from a discovery of an empty tomb. Rather it was the other way round: the story of the empty tomb came about because of an already existing belief in the resurrection of Jesus.

So, how was that earlier resurrection story born?

 *It is of interest that Paul says Jesus was buried, because we know that often victims of crucifixions weren't buried, rather their bodies were left on crosses to act as a deterrent to others to behave in the same criminal or seditious manner. The bodies would eventually be eaten as carrion by the local wildlife. DJR comes to this matter later on in the book, but for now I shall note in passing that the Jesus and Brian conference I've just attended pointed out how The Life of Brian was again accurate in this matter; in one scene Brian and his mother Mandy pass close to a couple of rotting corpses on crosses just outside the walls of Jerusalem (see video above). Thumbs up again to Brian's attention to detail!

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