A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Quote of the Day 2009.7: The Question of Jesus' Resurrection

"The question of Jesus' resurrection continues to haunt the thinking and writing of many scholars."

"[T]he early Christians looked forward to a resurrection which was not a mere resuscitation, nor yet the abandonment of the body and the liberation of the soul, but a transformation, a new type of body living within a new type of world. This belief is embroidered with biblical motifs, articulated in rich theology. Yet in the gospel narratives we find a story, told from different angles of course, without such embroidering and theology-- told indeed in restrained, largely unadorned prose. Yet the story is precisely of a single body neither abandoned, nor merely resuscitated, but transformed; and this, though itself totally unexpected, could give rise to exactly that developed view of which I have spoken. The Easter narratives, in other words, appear to offer an answer to why the early Christian hope and life took the form and shape they did."

"I suggest, in fact, that the gospel stories themselves, though no doubt written down a good deal later than Paul, go back with minimal editorial addition to the very early stories told by the first disciples in the earliest days of Christianity. They are not the later narratival adaptation of early Christian theology; they are its foundation."

"This does not mean, of course, that they are photographic descriptions of 'what happened'. No historical narrative is ever quite that. But they challenge today's historian, as they challenged their first hearers, either to accept them or to come up with a better explanation for why Christianity began and why it took the shape it did."

"...I would not pretend to have found an argument that would force a sceptic to admit that Jesus 'must have' been raised from the dead. It is always open to anyone to say, at least, 'I can't think of a better explanation, but I know there must be one, because I intend to hold to my presupposition that dead people don't rise.' Cautious agnosticism is always an option. What historical investigation can do, and in this case I believe must do, is to clear away the overgrown thickets of misunderstanding, misreading, sheer bad history, and sometimes willful obfuscation, in order that the main texts can be allowed to say what they are saying and the main questions may stand out in their stark simplicity."

"Historical investigation, I propose, brings us to the point where we must say that the tomb previously housing a thoroughly dead Jesus was empty, and that his followers saw and met someone they were convinced was this same Jesus, bodily alive though in a new, transformed fashion. The empty tomb on the one hand and the convincing appearances of Jesus on the other are the two conclusions the historian must draw. I do not think that history can force us to draw any particular further deductions beyond these two phenomena; the conclusion the disciples drew is there for the taking, but it is open to us, as it was to them, to remain cautious. Thomas waited a week before believing what he had been told. On Matthew's mountain, some had their doubts."

"However, the elegance and simplicity of explaining the two outstanding phenomena, the empty tomb and the visions, by means of one another, ought to be obvious. Were it not for the astounding, and world-view-challenging, claim that is thereby made, I think everyone would long since have concluded that this was the correct historical result. If some other account explained the rise of Christianity as naturally, completely and satisfyingly as does the early Christians' belief, while leaving normal worldviews intact, it would be accepted without demur."

"That, I believe, is the result of the investigation I have conducted. There are many other things to say about Jesus' resurrection. But, as far as I am concerned, the historian may and must say that all other explanations for why Christianity arose, and why it took the shape it did, are far less convincing as historical explanations than the one the early Christians themselves offer: that Jesus really did rise from the dead on Easter morning, leaving an empty tomb behind him. The origins of Christianity, the reason why this new movement came into being and took the unexpected form it did, and particularly the strange mutations it produced within the Jewish hope for resurrection and the Jewish hope for a Messiah, are best explained by saying that something happened, two or three days after Jesus' death, for which the accounts in the four gospels are the least inadequate expression we have."

"Of course, there are several reasons why people may not want, and often refuse, to believe this. But the historian must weigh, as well, the alternative accounts they themselves offer. And, to date, none of them have anything like the explanatory power of the simple, but utterly challenging, Christian one. The historian's task is not to force people to believe. It is to make it clear that the sort of reasoning historians characteristically employ-- inference to the best explanation, tested rigorously in terms of the explanatory power of the hypothesis thus generated-- points strongly towards the bodily resurrection of Jesus; and to make clear, too, that from that point on the historian alone cannot help. When you're dealing with worldviews, every community and every person must make their choices in the dark, even if there is a persistent rumour of light around the next corner."

You can read N.T. Wright's entire article, "Jesus' Resurrection and Christian Origins," here.

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