Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ehrman Chapter 5: The Resurrection - What We Can Know

More of Bart Ehrman's, How Jesus Became God. So far:

1. Divine Humans in Ancient Greece and Rome
2. Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism
3. Did Jesus Think He Was God?
4. The Resurrection of Jesus: What We Cannot Know

Chapter 5 is "The Resurrection - What We Can Know."

In the previous chapter, Ehrman's argument was basically that we can't know what happen to the body of Jesus but it wasn't buried to be sure. I'm being a little sarcastic here. I think that Craig Evans can make just as good a historical case, I suspect better, that Jesus was buried.

1. Let me shift the emphasis of chapter 5 a little. Here's the bottom line: "Some of the disciples wholeheartedly believed that they had seen Jesus after he had died" (202). This claim in this chapter will naturally lead to the next: "belief in the resurrection changed everything Christologically" (204).

How about this quote from Dale Allison, with which Ehrman agrees? "Nothing would prohibit a conscientious historian from... adopting a phenomenological approach to the data [that is, going with how things appear without concluding in relation to what was behind what appears]... Would it be an historical sin to content oneself with observing that the disciples' experiences... were genuine experiences that they at least took to originate outside their subjectivity?" (189).

Did you get that? Ehrman believes that several disciples, he thinks at least four, were completely convinced that they had seen Jesus alive after he had died!

2. Funny how you can actually turn his Debbie Downer tone into some pretty encouraging stuff. He even has me considering believing that the Virgin Mary has appeared to people. He tells of an incident in Venezuela where, on March 25, 1984, a series of people saw Mary hovering over a waterfall, including doctors, psychologists, engineers, and lawyers picnicking there (198). In another instance, Muslims saw and photographed Mary in an Egyptian suburb.

Let me repeat what I have said before. I see in page after page of this book the inadequacy of fundamentalism and its tendency to deconstruct in the hands of a good thinker. Why does he push the Virgin Mary appearances? In part because he knows that the fundamentalist crowd are anti-Catholic. I use the same tactic with King James only types, pointing out that the man most responsible for the wording of the Greek text behind the KJV was a Roman Catholic who argued against Luther and that the original King James had the Apocrypha.

He also plays on the "evidence that demands a verdict" apologetic zeal of so many fundamentalists. Listen to him here: "When I say that conservative evangelical Christians and fundamentalists are children of the Enlightenment, I mean that more than almost anyone else, thinkers among these groups are committed to 'objective truth'--which was precisely the commitment that led to the demise of Christianity in the modern world in the first place, especially in Europe" (172).

I don't know if he would still have faith if he had grown up Methodist, but it sure looks to me like his life trajectory away from faith was in part a result of the fact that he started out with such an evidentiarily unsustainable version of Christianity in the first place.

3. So what can a more faith-oriented (rather than proof-oriented) form of Christianity do with this chapter? For one, we can side with Allison over Ehrman on what the disciples' reaction to seeing Jesus would have been. Allison believes that, after seeing Jesus, the disciples would have then tried to find Jesus' body to verify that, in fact, he truly was alive again.

Ehrman disagrees (185). He thinks that, because of their apocalyptic worldview, the disciples would have automatically assumed that Jesus had physically risen from the dead and that, in fact, his resurrection indicated the beginning of the resurrection of all the dead.

Frankly, I find this sentiment both a little too simplistic and I'm not sure but that it doesn't contradict other things Ehrman says in the chapter. He even footnotes the fact that Jewish belief on the afterlife was a little more varied than this. He seems to be treating Jesus' apocalypticism as involving something like what you would get from a worldview class.

I presented a paper once to the Historical Jesus section of SBL on Jesus and resurrection and, to be frank, I didn't find that the subject seems to have played much of a role in his earthly teaching. In my opinion (and that of John Collins), resurrection was also not a major category for the Essenes at the Dead Sea. I think Ehrman is a little too confident in what the disciples would have automatically assumed after they saw Jesus alive again.

What is worse, he seems to argue in another thread of this chapter that the resurrection traditions of Jesus started out with him more spirit-bodied and progressed toward him being more physical-physical, with flesh and bones. But which is it? Did they automatically assume a body when they saw him or did they see spirit and the tradition develop toward flesh and bones? There seems to be somewhat of a tension in these two parts of his argument to me.

4. I was also annoyed with his repeated mention of Jesus having to "prove" that he was resurrected to various people in the resurrection stories. For example, the "many proofs" of Acts 1:3 are not for the disciples. They are for Luke's audience. On the basis of this statement, Ehrman acts like Jesus had to prove he was alive to the disciples (191), but the reason Luke speaks of proofs is because he wants Theophilus to be convinced. Luke isn't saying that Jesus needed to convince the disciples. Ehrman annoyingly says stuff like this several times.

5. There are things in this chapter, again, that may be distressing to a fundamentalist. Ehrman is right, IMO, that there is a consistent tradition of some of the disciples doubting. Yet Paul says Jesus appeared to the Twelve (1 Cor. 15:5). At least Ehrman acknowledges that "Paul actually knew Peter" (192), which implies to me that Paul can't be teaching something completely different from what Peter was saying happened to Jesus.

But Christian faith does not rise or fall on every detail being historical, IMO. Even Ehrman believes that several of Jesus' followers were fully convinced they had seen an (at least spiritually) embodied Jesus after his death. And, contrary to Ehrman, there are solid reasons to believe that Jesus' body was missing from the place it was known to have been laid.

This is enough to make orthodox faith reasonable, even if Ehrman can point to discrepancies in the stories here and there.

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