Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ehrman Chapter 4: The Resurrection - What We Cannot Know

The review of Bart Ehrman's, How Jesus Became God continues. The posts so far are:

1. Divine Humans in Ancient Greece and Rome
2. Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism
3. Did Jesus Think He Was God?

Today is chapter 4, "The Resurrection of Jesus: What We Cannot Know."

Boy, this chapter was a "glass is pretty much empty" downer. If I were to capture his point in this chapter it would be this: From a historical perspective, just about any explanation other than Jesus really rose from the dead is more likely.

On the one hand, I thought his explanation of historical study, while pessimistic, was not far off. He recognizes, for example, that presuppositions are always involved in historical study. And he claims not to have an anti-supernaturalist presupposition. I think it's actually pretty clear that he is biased against supernaturalist explanations, but he gives lip service to the possibility that there may be a supernatural explanation surrounding a historical episode.

The philosophy of history he gives here is not far from my own. Historical inquiry tries to explain events in terms of the normal operations of cause and effect. [1] Theological faith is then an additional layer of interpretation that comes into play 1) when cause and effect seems less than adequate as an explanation, 2) especially when revelation has pointed to a miracle at that point. So, trying to speak objectively in these historical terms I have sometimes said in the past, "If resurrections happen, it is quite likely that Jesus was one of them."

Ehrman would disagree. His chief target in this chapter is the burial of Jesus. "Without an empty tomb, there would be no ground for saying that Jesus was physically raised" (168). In fact, I think he is going to argue that the earliest resurrection versions saw Jesus as spiritually raised and then the versions of the resurrections became more and more physical as time went by.

Interestingly, he does believe that at least one person and possibly more than one person thought they saw the resurrected Jesus after he died. He sees a "vision" of this sort as the seed that would lead to Christians believing that Jesus is God. That's the next chapter. But he does not think it likely that Jesus was ever buried and, thus, does not think it likely that there was ever an empty tomb.

It is a little sad that his sense of things was actually more open to an empty tomb until he started researching this book. And, unfortunately, he seems to have been reading Crossan in his research. Accordingly, all he found were the references where the Romans left people on crosses to make their point emphatically, to let the birds eat their flesh. His references to Pilate are all about his cruelty.

Craig Evans has thoroughly balanced this one set of quotes with another in chapter 4 of How God Became Jesus, including archaeological evidence of buried individuals in Israel who had been crucified. If a person wants to be objective, the bottom line is that you simply cannot say either that Pilate would or would not have let someone take Jesus' body down from the cross. Evans makes a strong case that, since Jewish leaders instigated Jesus' crucifixion, Pilate would also have let them bury the body for reasons of Jewish purity.

I find Evans' argument quite compelling. It seems very plausible historically that Jesus' crucifixion was not, in origination, an instance of Pilate rubbing Roman authority in the noses of the Jews but an example of Jewish leaders getting permission to have someone put to death. It then makes sense that Pilate would give them permission to dispose of him before the Sabbath.

Ehrman is correct that we cannot prove these things historically. But the same chapter could have been written to show that Jesus' burial and empty tomb are perfectly plausible from a historical point of view. His aim is to show both that the evidence can be explained a different way and to argue that, in relation to Jesus' burial, it is more likely that he wasn't.

I don't think he makes his case. I think he only demonstrates that the evidence for Jesus' burial can be explained in other ways. I don't think he demonstrates that it should be explained in other ways. The hints he finds are too vague to have much force. So he argues from the tradition in 1 Corinthians 15 that the burial part was kind of added in. Seems less than obvious to me. He sees a discrepancy between the plural of Acts 13:29 and the singular name of Joseph of Arimathea in Mark 15:43. Since I take the sermons of Acts to be somewhat amplified versions anyway, I don't find this small difference substantial.

And while Paul has almost nothing to say of Jesus' burial, apart from this comment in 1 Corinthians 15:4, his understanding of resurrection in the rest of the chapter assumes that the previous body is the starting point for the transformation of resurrection. "The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable" (15:42). Note well--the earliest source of the resurrection sees resurrection as the transformation of the previous body, not a spiritual resurrection. If anything, Paul's writings become less clearly tied to a corporeal resurrection as time goes by, not more (cf. 2 Cor. 5).

I want to close with a warning. You can once again see the reverse image of the fundamentalism with which Ehrman started here. Those who never read chapters like these--or who are immensely stubborn intellectually--can blissfully argue for "detailed inerrancy" of the sort the Nazarenes voted down last year. But few open-minded fundamentalist souls of this sort will survive his opening assault on page 134.

It is not essential for Christian faith that we be able to historically line up the resurrection accounts in detail, in my opinion. Those who think it is may find themselves eventually like Ehrman. Zealots of this sort are often the first to lose their faith. I personally believe that Luke omits all references to Galilee intentionally so that his account flows more smoothly. The way the fundamentalist is oriented around details hits a snag on this sort of thing. I myself would not call this an error because I think Luke does it intentionally, following a different standard of history writing than we are used to today.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Christian faith rides on these "fundamental" propositions, not on being able to prove the historicity of every part of every story in Scripture, in my opinion. We will keep our smartest children from faith crisis if we keep such things in mind.

[1] There is perhaps a tinge of the postmodern in his version. He does not reference cause and effect but instead references historical explanations that are "generally held." In this sense he allows for the acceptable interpretations of the past to change over time as the current worldviews of historians change. I do consider his perspective an advance on Ernst Troelstch, whose criterion of analogy held that we cannot accept that things happened in the past that do not happen today.


John Mark said...

Do you think people like the late Christopher Hitchens, no theologian but a very bright man, was aware that he was reacting against a fundamentalist reading of scripture? Or is it possible to have an opinion on him here? I have had a number of discussions about this, and what very little I know I have gotten from you (no fault of yours that I have not assimilated more), and have tried to argue that he was critiquing fundamentalism above all to disprove any rational reason to believe in Jesus. The question, again, was it deliberate and knowing on his part?

Ken Schenck said...

My personal opinion is that people like Hitchens or Richard Dawkins who have never been Christians (if I am thinking correctly) tend to attack a very simplistic version of Christianity. Interestingly, Ehrman actually has some nuance on some things that these individuals don't have, but I think (as Hurtado said) he is not operating in his field of specialty.

John Mark said...

There was an article in Time a while ago on Ehrman who has apparently shaken the faith of many of the students he teaches. Sad, I think

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"Faith" can be in anything. If it is in God, then, it is a matter of preferring to interpret with that "allowance", as God cannot be proved, only believed in. Thus, to have faith is a personal choice of value, a bias, isn't it?

That bias suggests a "fight for the faith" for those that hold that bias, and the belief that it is important for human flourishing. Why would "faith in God" be important to human flourishing, unless it was to affirm some "sweet by and by" when one will gain liberty and justice? And how's that working out for those that continue to believe BEYOND evidence?

Life "happens" and believers "have an answer (hope, i.e. theology) to give, but does that really suffice? There are basic human needs that such "hope" does not meet. These are social problems, not spiritual ones!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Social problems are what politicians desire to address, but what determines a social problem? That depends on what one considers to be important, which is a matter of personal interests.

Anything could be considered a social problem...these become political problems, that politicians seek to solve and address.! OR do politicans prevent political problems from developing by allowing as much liberty as possible for their citizens?

Politicians are just as interested in protecting their jobs as any of us I think. And doesn't that fuzzy their perception and how they go about addressing problems?!

The Church is not above politics, either, because Government describes denominational opinions and leaders are their politicians. Churches have differences in their understanding not just theologically, but governmentally.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I meant not governmentally, but structurally

R Vogel said...

So you rightly indicate that historians always have certain presuppositions, and in this case you attempt to undermine Erhman's credibility due to his lack of seriously considering an actual resurrection as a plausible event. You want to make a case that to exclude the supernatural is somehow a failing in this instance. This is similar to what N.T. Wright does in Surprised by Hope. So the question is (1) do you only apply your supernatural presupposition to Judeo/Christian stories or do you think the supernatural explanations from other religions are just as valid? and (2) given that you self-identify as a Christian, do you really think that you are a trustworthy source to determine what is or is not a reasonable explanation in this case? Aren't we all subject to confirmation bias?

Ken Schenck said...

I am certainly subject to confirmation bias and any claims I make should be critically evaluated. You are right. To be consistent, I must be willing to accept the possibility of supernatural events as attested by other religions (although not necessarily their interpretations of them).

The difference between Ehrman and me here is that I am willing to be convinced that the resurrection didn't happen. By contrast, Ehrman in practice (although not in theory) eliminates the resurrection as a possibility. What I am arguing is that, in my paradigm, there is a possible world in which the resurrection did not happen. But there is scarcely a possible world in which Ehrman thinks the resurrection did happen.