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Chapter One: The Target and the Arrows

Part 1

1. Introduction: The Target

The pilgrim who visits the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem faces several puzzles. Is this after all the place where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and buried? Why is it inside the city walls, not outside as one had supposed? How does the present building relate to the original site? How did the place come to be so different from what the New Testament leads us to expect (a garden with a tomb in it, close to a hill called Golgotha)? And, even supposing this is roughly the right place, is this the right spot? Is this rocky outcrop, now enclosed within an upstairs chapel, actually the top of Golgotha? Is this marble slab really where the dead Jesus was laid? Is this highly ornate shrine really the site of the tomb? And a different sort of question, but a pressing one for many visitors - why are different groups of Christians still squabbling about who owns the place? These puzzles, though, do not noticeably affect the appeal of the place. Despite archaeological, historical and ecclesiastical squabbles, the church retains its evocative and spiritual power. Pilgrims still flock to it in their hundreds of thousands.'

Some of them still question whether it all really happened. Did Jesus of Nazareth, they ask, really rise from the dead? Whether or not they realize it, they join a different throng on a different pilgrimage: the jostling, over­heated crowd of historians investigating the strange reports of events at the tomb of Jesus on the third day following his execution. Here they are confronted with a similar set of problems. The story of Easter, like the church at its supposed location, has been demolished and reconstructed again and again over the years. The tantalizing narratives in the gospels are as puzzling to the reader as the building is to the visitor. How do they fit together, if at all? What precisely happened? Which school of thought today, if any, is telling the story truly? Many have despaired of discovering what, if anything, happened on the third day after Jesus' crucifixion. Yet, despite perplexity and scepticism, billions of Christians around the world regularly repeat the original confession of Easter faith: on the third day after his execution, Jesus rose again.

So what did happen on Easter morning? This historical question, which is the central theme of the present book, is closely related to the question of why Christianity began, and why it took the shape it did. [2] This in turn is the fourth of five questions I set out in Jesus and the Victory of God, which proposed answers to the first three (where does Jesus belong within Judaism? what were Jesus' aims? and why did Jesus die?). (I hope to address the fifth question, why the gospels are what they are, in a subsequent volume.) The question of Christian origins is inevitably a question about Jesus himself as well as about the early church. Whatever else the early Christians said about themselves, they regularly explained their own existence and characteristic activities by speaking of Jesus.

It is remarkable but true that in order to determine what happened on one particular day nearly two thousand years ago we fmd ourselves obliged to call and cross-examine a wide variety of witnesses, some of whom are simultaneously being questioned by advocates of other answers to the question. The debate has frequently been bedevilled by oversimplifications, and to avoid this we shall have to set things out reasonably fully. Even so, there is no space for a full-scale history of research on the subject. I have chosen certain conversation partners, and regret that there was no room for more. My impression from reading the literature is that the primary sources themselves are not well enough known, or carefully enough studied. This book seeks to remedy that, without always noting the scholars who either agree or disagree. [3]

As the overall title of the project indicates, and as Part I of the first volume explained, my intention is to write both about the historical beginnings of Christianity and about the question of god. I am, of course, aware that for over two hundred years scholars have laboured to keep history and theology. or history and faith, at arm's length from one another. There is a good intention behind this move: each of these disciplines has its own proper shape and logic, and cannot simply be turned into a branch of the other. Yet here of all places with Christian origins in general, and the resurrection in particular they are inevitably intertwined. Not to recognize this, in fact, is often to decide tacitly in favour of a particular type of theology, perhaps a form of Deism, whose absentee-landlord god keeps clear of historical 'involvement. Preserving this position by appeal to divine 'transcendence' is a way of restating the problem, not of settling it. [4] The mirror-image of this is the assumption of a rank supernaturalism whose miracle-working god routinely bypasses historical causation. Elsewhere on the map are various forms of pantheism, panentheism and process theology in which 'god' is part of, or closely related to, the space-time world and the historical process. To recognize the link between history and theology, therefore, is not to decide questions of history or theology in advance, but to give notice of the necessary many-sidedness of the topic.

This is near the heart of the multiple disagreements I fmd between myself and one of the major writers on the subject in the last twenty years, Archbishop Peter Carnley. [5] There seems to be an implicit argument in his work (and in that of some others) according to which (a) historical-critical scholarship has thoroughly deconstructed the events of the first Easter but (b) anyone attempting to engage with this scholarship on its own terms is told that to do so is to cut the resurrection down to size, to reduce it to a merely mundane level. Historical work, it seems, is fine, necessary even, as long as it comes up with sceptical results, but dangerous and damaging to genuine faith! if it tries to do anything else. [6] Heads I lose; tails you win. While not wishing to embrace the older historical-critical methods uncriti­cally, we must insist that the appeal to history still matters and can still be made, without prejudging theological questions at this stage. We can be content neither with 'an apologetic colonizing of historical study' nor with 'a theologically dictated indifference to history' [7] I agree with Camley (345, 365) that we must not be lured into a one-sided preoccupation with the attempt to establish factual propositions about Jesus; but he uses that warning as a way of allowing demonstrably spurious historical reconstructions to remain unchallenged. As Moule insisted, taking history seriously does not constitute a vote for liberal Protestantism. [8] Nor did the question of 'what actually happened' only begin to be felt important with John Locke. [9]

For much of the present investigation, the 'question of god' introduces itself in the form: what did the early Christians believe about the god of whom they spoke? What account of this god's being and action did they give in their earliest days, and how did this express and undergird their reasons for continuing to exist as a group at all, after the death of their leader? In other words, for Parts II, III and IV we shall be concerned with the historical reconstruction of what the early Christians believed about themselves, about Jesus and about their god. It will become clear that they believed in the god of the Israelite patriarchs and prophets, who had made promises in the past and had now, surprisingly but powerfully, fulfilled them in and through Jesus. Only in the final part must we open up the far harder issue: in reaching historical conclusions about what happened at Easter, we cannot avoid the question of the historian's own worldview and theology. Here, once again, not to do so is usually tacitly to decide in favour of a particular worldview, often that of post-Enlightenment scepticism.

The shape of the book is thus determined by the two main sub-questions into which the principal question divides: what did the early Christians think had happened to Jesus, and what can we say about the plausibility of those beliefs? The first of these is the subject of Parts II, III and IV, and the second is addressed in Part V. The two obviously overlap, since part of the reason for the conclusion of Part V is the striking beliefs discovered in Parts II-IV, and the difficulty of accounting for those beliefs except on the hypothesis that they were true. But in theory the questions are separable. It is perfectly possible for a scholar to conclude (a) that the early Christians thought Jesus had been bodily raised and (b) that they were wrong. [10] Many have taken that view. It is incumbent on anyone who does, however, to provide an alternative account of why (a) came to be the case; and one of the interesting features of the history of research is the range of quite different answers that continue to be given to that question.

As the present book, and the research leading to it, have grown over the last few years, I have become conscious that there is at the moment a broadly dominant paradigm for understanding Jesus' resurrection, a paradigm which, despite numerous dissenting voices, is widely accepted in the worlds both of scholarship and of many mainline churches. Though my approach throughout the book will be positive and expository, it is worth noting from the outset that I intend to challenge this dominant paradigm in each of its main constituent parts. In general terms, this view holds the following: (1) that the Jewish context provides only a fuzzy setting, in which 'resurrection' could mean a variety of different things; (2) that the earliest Christian writer, Paul, did not believe in bodily resurrection, but held a 'more spiritual' view; (3) that the earliest Christians believed, not in Jesus' bodily resurrection, but in his exaltation/ascension/glorification, in his 'going to heaven' in some kind of special capacity, and that they came to use 'resurrection' language initially to denote that belief and only subsequently to speak of an empty tomb or of 'seeing' the risen Jesus; (4) that the resurrection stories in the gospels are late inventions designed to bolster up this second-stage belief; (5) that such 'seeings' of Jesus as may have taken place are best understood in terms of Paul's conversion experience, which itself is to be explained as a 'religious' experience, internal to the subject rather than involving the seeing of any external reality, and that the early Christians underwent some kind of fantasy or hallucination; (6) that whatever happened to Jesus' body (opinions differ as to whether it was even buried in the first place), it was not 'resuscitated', and was certainly not 'raised from the dead' in the sense that the gospel stories, read at face value, seem to require. [11] Of course, different elements in this package are stressed differently by different scholars; but the picture will be familiar to anyone who has even dabbled in the subject, or who has listened to a few mainstream Easter sermons, or indeed funeral sermons, in recent decades. The negative burden of the present book is that there are excellent, well-founded and secure historical arguments against each of these positions.

The positive thrust, naturally, is to establish (1) a different view of the Jewish context and materials, (2) a fresh understanding of Paul and (3) all the other early Christians, and (4) a new reading of the gospel stories; and to argue (5) that the only possible reason why early Christianity began and took the shape it did is that the tomb really was empty and that people really did meet Jesus, alive again, and (6) that, though admitting it involves accepting a challenge at the level of worldview itself, the best historical explanation for all these phenomena is that Jesus was indeed bodily raised from the dead. (The numbering of these arguments corresponds to the Parts of the present volume, except that (5) and (6) correspond to the two chapters (18 and 19) of Part V.)

Debate has focused on a dozen or so key points within these topics. Just as day trippers to the English Lake District make for the main towns (Windermere, Ambleside, Keswick) and remain within a few miles of them, so those who write articles and monographs on the resurrection come back, again and again, to the same key points (Jewish ideas about life after death, Paul's 'spiritual body', the empty tomb, the 'sightings' of Jesus, and so on). The day tripper, however, does not get the best out of the Lakes; does not, perhaps, really understand the area at all. In this book I propose to head for the hills and the narrow country lanes as well as the more populated areas. As an obvious example (but it is remarkable how many seem to ignore it), to write about Paul's view of the resurrection without mentioning 2 Corinthians 5 or Romans 8 which many have done is like saying you 'know' the Lake District when you have never climbed Scafell Pike or Helvellyn (England's highest mountains). One of the reasons this book is longer than I expected is that I was determined to include all the evidence.

Two preliminary subjects, both themselves controversial, must be examined before we can get to the heart of the question. First, what sort of historical task are we undertaking in talking about the resurrection at all? This introductory chapter attempts to clear the necessary ground on this point. Without it, some readers would object that I was begging the question of whether it is even possible to write historically about the resurrection.

Second, how did people in Jesus' day, both Gentiles and Jews, think and speak about the dead and their future destiny? In particular, what if anything did the word 'resurrection' (anastasis and its cognates, and the verb egeiro and its cognates, in Greek, and qum and its cognates in Hebrew) mean within that spectrum of belief? [12] Chapters 2 and 3 address this question, clarifying in particular a vital move, as we shall see what the early Christians meant, and were heard to mean, when they spoke and wrote about Jesus' resurrection. As George Caird once pointed out, when a speaker declares 'I'm mad about my flat' it helps to know whether they are American (in which case they are angry about their puncture) or British (in which case they are enthusiastic about their living quarters). [13] When the early Christians said 'The Messiah was raised from the dead on the third day', what might they have been heard to be saying? This may seem obvious to some readers, but it was by no means obvious, according to the evangelists, when Jesus said similar things to his followers, and a glance at contemporary literature will show that it remains far from obvious to many scholars today. [14] As well as the question of meaning (what did this kind of talk mean at the time?) we must consider the question of derivation: what, if anything, did the Christian shaping of ideas and language about Easter owe to the wider context, both Jewish and non-Jewish? Chapter 2 examines the non-Jewish world of the first century with these two questions in mind; chapters 3 and 4, developing the brief discussion in the first volume of this series, the Jewish world. [15]

Let me then spell out somewhat more fully the brief, almost formulaic account given a moment ago of how the argument develops from there. I shall come at the main question of Parts II-IV by asking: granted the wide range of views about life after death in general and resurrection in particular, what did the early Christians believe on these topics, and how can we account for their beliefs? We shall discover that, although the early Christians remained, in one sense, within the Jewish spectrum of opinion, their views on the subject had clarified and indeed crystallized to a degree unparalleled elsewhere in Judaism. The explanation they gave, for this and much besides, was the equally unparalleled claim that Jesus of Nazareth had himself been bodily raised from the dead. Parts II, III and IV will show that this belief about resurrection in general, and about Jesus in particular, presses the historian to account for such a sudden and dramatic mutation from within the Jewish worldview.

In exploring these issues, I shall follow a non-traditional route. Most discussions have begun with the resurrection stories contained in the final chapters of the four canonical gospels, and moved outwards from there. Since those chapters are among the most difficult parts of the material before us, and since they were by common consent written down later than our primary literary witness, namely Paul, I propose to leave them until last, preparing the way by looking at Paul himself (Part II) and the other early Christian writers, both canonical and non-canonical (Part III). Despite what is sometimes suggested, we shall discover substantial unanimity on the basic point: virtually all the early Christians for whom we have solid evidence affirmed that Jesus of Nazareth had been bodily raised from the dead. When they said 'he was raised on the third day', they meant this literally. Only when we have seen how strong this case is can we do justice to the resurrection stories in the gospels, which will occupy us in Part IV.

Part V will then close in on the question: what can historians in the twenty-first century say about Easter on the basis of the historical evidence? I shall argue that far and away the best explanation of the early Christian mutation within Jewish resurrection-belief is that two things had happened. First, Jesus' tomb was found to be empty. Second, several people, including at least one, and perhaps more, who had not previously been followers of Jesus, claimed to have seen him alive in a way for which the readily available language of ghosts, spirits and the like was inappropriate, and for which their previous beliefs about life after death, and resurrection in particular, had not prepared them. Take away either of these historical conclusions, and the belief of the early church becomes itself inexplicable.

The further question then is, why was the tomb empty, and what account can be given of the sightings of the apparently risen Jesus? I shall argue that the best historical explanation is the one which inevitably raises all kinds of theological questions: the tomb was indeed empty, and Jesus was indeed seen alive, because he was truly raised from the dead.

Proposing that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead was just as controversial nineteen hundred years ago as it is today. The discovery that dead people stayed dead was not first made by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. The historian who wishes to make such a proposal is therefore compelled to challenge a basic and fundamental assumption not only, as is sometimes suggested, the position of eighteenth-century scepticism, or of the 'scientific worldview' as opposed to a 'pre-scientific worldview', but also of almost all ancient and modem peoples outside the Jewish and Christian traditions.[16] I shall advance both historical and theological arguments in favour of making this quite drastic move, drawing as I do so on the early Christian theological reflections which followed from the belief in Jesus' resurrection the reflections which, from very early indeed, came to the conclusion that the resurrection demonstrated that Jesus was God's son, and that, equally importantly, the one true God was now to be known most truly as the father of Jesus. The circle of the book will thus be complete.

Before we can even take aim at the targets, however, we must ask: is such a task even possible?

2. The Arrows

(i) Shooting at the Sun                                       

There was once a king who commanded his archers to shoot at the sun. His strongest bowmen, using their finest equipment, tried all day; but their arrows fell short, and the sun continued unaffected on its course. All night the archers polished and refeathered their arrows, and the next day they tried again, with renewed zeal; but still their efforts were in vain. The king became angry, and uttered dark threats. On the third day the youngest archer, with the smallest bow, came at noon to where the king sat before a pond in his garden. There was the sun, a golden ball reflected in the still water. With a single shot the lad pierced it at its heart. The sun splintered into a thousand glittering fragments.

All the arrows of history cannot reach God. There may, of course, be some meanings of the word 'god' that would allow such a being to be set up like a target in a shooting-gallery, for historians to take pot-shots at. The more serious a pantheist someone is, the more likely they will be to suppose that in studying the course of events within the natural world they are studying their god. But the god of Jewish tradition, the god of Christian faith, and indeed the god of Muslim devotion (whether these be three or one does not presently concern us) are simply not that kind of god. The transcendence of the god(s) of Judaism, Christianity and Islam provides the theological equivalent of the force of gravity. The arrows of history are doomed to fall short.

And yet. Deep within both Jewish and Christian tradition there lies a rumour that an image, a reflection, of the one true god has appeared within the gravitational field of history. This rumour, running from Genesis through the Wisdom tradition, and then into Jewish beliefs about Torah on the one hand and Christian beliefs about Jesus on the other, may yet offer a way for the circle to be squared, for the cake to be both eaten and possessed, for the transcendence of this god to come within bowshot.

This commandment is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?' No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. [17]

And what Moses said of Torah, Paul said of Jesus, with reference not least to his resurrection. [18]

These reflections set the context for us to consider what history can and cannot say about what happened at Easter. Some have supposed that by offering historical 'proofs' of the Easter event they have thereby proved, in some modern, quasi-scientific sense, not only the existence of the Christian god but also the validity of the Christian message. [19] Turning their arrows into space-rockets, they have forgotten Icarus and have set out boldly towards the sun. Others, remembering the force of gravity, have declared the whole enterprise pointless, and actually worse than pointless. If we claim to have hit the target, have we not reduced God to an idol? Thus, as in the previous volume, we find ourselves at the intersection of history and theology, which in the early twenty-first century means that we are still wrestling with the ghosts of our Enlightenment past. These questions, powerful and complex already when we talk about Jesus himself, become all the more pressing when we attempt to speak of the resurrection. What then are we trying to do in this book?

(ii) Resurrection and History

(a) The Senses of 'History'

It has frequently been argued, indeed insisted upon, that, whatever we mean by the resurrection of Jesus, it is not accessible to historical investigation. Some have even suggested that it is not to be thought of in any meaningful sense as 'an event within history' at all. The archers cannot see the target properly; some doubt if it even exists. Over against this, I shall argue that the resurrection of Jesus, whatever it was, can and must be seen as at least a historical problem.

What, though, do we mean by 'historical'? [20] 'History' and its cognates have been used, within debates about Jesus and the resurrection, in at least five significantly different ways.

First, there is history as event. If we say something is 'historical' in this sense, it happened, whether or not we can know or prove that it happened. The death of the last pterodactyl is in that sense a historical event, even though no human witnessed it or wrote about it at the time, and we are very unlikely ever to discover when and where it took place. Similarly, we use the word 'historical' of persons or things, to indicate simply and solely that they existed. [21]

Second, there is history as significant event. Not all events are significant; history, it is often assumed, consists of the ones that are. The adjective that tends to go with this is 'historic'; 'a historic event' is not simply an event that took place, but one whose occurrence carried momentous consequences. Likewise, a 'historic' person, building or object is one perceived to have had particular significance, not merely existence. Rudolf Bultmann, himself arguably a historic figure within the discipline of New Testament studies, famously used the adjective geschichtlich to convey this sense, over against historisch (sense 1).

Third, there is history as provable event. To say that something is 'historical' in this sense is to say not only that it happened but that we can demonstrate that it happened, on the analogy of mathematics or the so-called hard sciences. This is somewhat more controversial. To say 'x may have happened, but we can't prove it, so it isn't really historical' may not be self­contradictory, but is clearly operating with a more restricted sense of 'history' than some of the others.

Fourth, and quite different from the previous three, there is history as writing-about-events-in-the past. To say that something is 'historical' in this sense is to say that it was written about, or perhaps could in principle have been written about. (This might even include 'historical' novels.) A variant on this, though an important one, is oral history; at a time when many regarded the spoken word as carrying more authority than the written, history as speaking-about-events-in-the-past is not to be sneezed at [22]

Fifth and finally, a combination of (3) and (4) is often found precisely in discussions of Jesus: history as what modern historians can say about a topic. By 'modem' I mean 'post-Enlightenment', the period in which people have imagined some kind of analogy, even correlation, between history and the hard sciences. In this sense, 'historical' means not only that which can be demonstrated and written, but that which can be demonstrated and written within the post-Enlightenment worldview. This is what people have often had in mind when they have rejected 'the historical Jesus' (which hereby, of course, comes to mean 'the Jesus that fits the Procrustean bed of a reductionist worldview') in favour of 'the Christ of faith'. [23]

Confusion between these senses has of course bedevilled this very debate about the so-called 'historical Jesus', the phrase being used by some to mean Jesus as he actually was (sense 1), by others to mean what was significant about Jesus (sense 2), by others to mean that which we can prove about Jesus, as opposed to that which we must either doubt or take on faith alone (sense 3); by others again to mean what people have written about Jesus (sense 4). Those who, as I mentioned, have taken the phrase in sense 5 have often rejected the Jesus not only of that sense but, apparently, of the previous four as well. [24] Jesus and the Victory of God constitutes, in part, a response to this position. But we must now face one very specific, particular and in some senses peculiar case of the problem. In what sense, if any, can Jesus' resurrection be spoken of as 'historical'?

Ever since the time of Paul, people have tried to write about Jesus' resurrection (whatever they meant by that). The question, of course, rebounds: were they thereby writing about an event in the past? Were they writing 'history'? Or was it all actually the projection of their own faith-experience? When they said 'Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day', were they intending to make some kind of historical claim about Jesus, or did they themselves know that this was a metaphor for their own remarkable new religious experience, the rise of their faith, and so on? This pushes us back to sense 1, which is the question at stake throughout much of this book: was the resurrection something that actually happened, and if so what precisely was it that happened? We do not seem to have had much polemic against 'the historical resurrection' in the same way that there has been angry rejection of 'the historical Jesus' [25]

There is no problem about predicating sense 2 of Jesus' resurrection. Virtually everyone will agree that whatever-it-was-that-happened was extremely significant. Indeed, some recent writers agree that it was very significant while continuing to argue that we cannot know what 'it' is. There are enormous problems about sense 3: it all depends on what you mean by 'proof', and we shall return to that question in due course. Sense 4 is unproblematic: the 'event' has been written about, even if it was all made up. But it is sense 5 that has caused the real headache: what can historians in today's world say on the subject? Unless we keep these distinctions clear in our minds as we proceed, we shall not just have enormous problems; we shall go round in ever-decreasing circles.

Is it, then, possible to speak of the resurrection of Jesus as an event within history? In his rightly famous book The Historical Jesus, J. D. Crossan says, of the Quest for Jesus as a whole, that there were some scholars who said it couldn't be done, and some who said it shouldn't be done; and that there were some who said the former when they meant the latter. [26] This is equally true, if not more so, when it comes to the resurrection. Since I believe we can and must discuss the resurrection as a historical problem, it is important that we address these questions head on. There are six objections;

I shall divide them into two broad groups, beginning with those who say that such historical study of the resurrection cannot be undertaken, and going on to those who suggest that it should not be. The parable of the archers and the sun applies more to the latter than to the former group. A little modification of the parable will give us a double picture. Those who think we cannot study the resurrection historically suppose either that there is no target at all or that, if there is, the archers cannot see it. Those who think we should not study the resurrection historically suppose that the target lies outside the gravitational range of their arrows. The first group of objectors, assuming the target to be an ordinary terrestrial one, protest that the archers cannot aim at something they cannot see; the second declare that no arrow can reach ever the sun, so that the quest is doomed, and guilty of a kind of hubris, from the very start.

(b) No Access?

The first objection to treating the resurrection historically is made often enough, and is associated in the scholarship of the last generation with Willi Marxsen in particular. [27] Marxsen denies that we have any access, as historians, to the resurrection itself. There may be a target somewhere, but we can't see it and so can't shoot at it. All we have, apparently, is access to the beliefs of the early disciples. No sources, except the late and unreliable so­called Gospel of Peter, purport to describe Jesus' coming out of the tomb; even that strange text does not describe the moment of his first awakening and shaking off the grave-clothes [28] Therefore, says Marxsen, we should not speak of the resurrection itself as 'historical'. A remarkable number of subsequent scholars have followed him in this assertion.[29]

This proposal appears to be cautious and scientific. It is, however, neither of these things. It involves a rash dismissal of an important question, and a misunderstanding of how science, including scientific historiography, actually works. It says, in fact, both too little and too much.

Too little: in standard positivistic fashion it appears to suggest that we can only regard as 'historical' that to which we have direct access (in the sense of 'first-hand witness accounts' or near equivalent). But, as all real historians know, that is not in fact how history works. Positivism is, if anything, even less appropriate in historiography than in other areas. Again and again the historian has to conclude, even if only to avoid total silence, that certain events took place to which we have no direct access but which are the necessary postulates of that to which we do have access. Scientists, not least physicists, make this sort of move all the time; indeed, this is precisely how scientific advances happen. [30] Ruling out as historical that to which we do not have direct access is actually a way of not doing history at all.

As a result, this view also says too much. On its own epistemology, it ought not even to claim access to the disciples' faith. Even the texts themselves do not give us direct access to this faith in the way that Marxsen and others seem to regard as necessary. All we have in this case are texts; and, though Marxsen did not address this question, the same relentless suspicion, applied in regular postmodern fashion, might lead some to question whether we even have those. If, in other words, you want to be a no-holds-barred historical positivist, only accepting as historical that to which you have (in this sense) direct access, you have a long and stony road ahead of you. Few if any actual practising historians travel by this route.

This is a classic case of failing to distinguish between the different senses of 'history'. Marxsen recognizes that nobody, at least so far as we know, wrote about the actual transition of Jesus from death to life (sense 4 above), deduces from this that nothing can be proved about the event (sense 3), and constantly writes as if this means that we as 'modern historians' can say nothing about it (sense 5), or indeed about what 'it' in this sense might even be, whether or not we could say anything sensible about it (sense 1). At the same time, he wants to suggest that whatever happened or didn't happen, it was obviously significant (sense 2), because otherwise the early church would never have come into being. This is, to say the least, highly misleading. Marxsen's whole position will be steadily outflanked as we proceed.

(c) No Analogy?

The second objection is associated, famously, with Ernst Troeltsch. He argued that we can only speak or write as historians about things which have some analogy in our own experience; resurrections do not occur in our experience; therefore we cannot, as historians, speak of the resurrection. [31] We haven't ever hit at a target like this before, so there's no point shooting at this one now. This does not necessarily mean that it did not in some sense occur ('history' sense 1) or that people have written things purporting to be about it (sense 4); only that it is illegitimate to try to write about it as history today (sense 5), let alone to try to prove it (sense 3). This is sometimes understood as a nuanced restatement of Hume's famous objection to miracles in general. [32] But I think it is, in principle at least, more subtle than that: Jesus' resurrection might have occurred, but we simply cannot say anything about it.

Pannenberg, equally famously, has proposed an answer to Troeltsch on this point. He suggests that the ultimate verification of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (sense 3) will eventually be provided through the final resurrection of those in Christ, which will constitute the required analogy. There will, in other words, come a time when we shall all shoot at the target and not miss. This, in effect, concedes Troeltsch's point, but pleads for a stay of verdict pending eschatological verification. [33] But I wonder if Pannenberg has not given too much away here?

At the comparatively trivial level, we can easily conceive of an event in which something quite new occurs. We did not have to wait for the second space flight before being able to talk, as historians, about the first one. True, space flight might be thought to have partial analogies in the flight of aeroplanes, not to say birds (or even arrows). But part of the point of the resurrection, within the Jewish worldview, was (as we shall see) that it would be in line with, though going significantly beyond, the great liberating acts of God on behalf of Israel in the past not to mention the partial analogies with the resuscitations of people in the Old Testament, and indeed with remarkable healings. [34] There were partial anticipation and analogies, even though the event itself was significantly new.

It is important to note what would follow if we took Troeltsch's point seriously: we would be able to say nothing about the rise of the early church as a whole. [35] Never before had there been a movement which began as a quasi-messianic group within Judaism and was transformed into the sort of movement which Christianity quickly became. Nor has any similar phenomenon ever occurred again. (The common post-Enlightenment perception of Christianity as simply 'a religion' masks the huge differences, at the point of origin, between this movement and, say, the rise of Islam or of Buddhism.) Both pagan and Jewish observers of this new movement found it highly anomalous: it was not like a club, not even like a religion (no sacrifices, no images, no oracles, no garlanded priests), certainly not like a racially based cult. How, in Troeltsch's scheme, might we speak of such a thing, which had not been seen before and has never been seen since? Only at best by partial analogy, by saying both what it was like and what it was not like. To squash the movement into already existing categories, or to deny its existence on the grounds that it was unprecedented, would be the work, not of a historian, but of a Procrustean philosopher.

The rise of the early church thus constitutes in itself a counter-example to Troeltsch's general point. If we are to speak truly about the early church, we must describe something for which there was no precedent and of which there remains no subsequent example. In addition, as we shall see, the early church by its very existence forces upon us the question which we, as historians, must ask: what precisely happened after Jesus' crucifixion that caused early Christianity to come into being? Ironically, then, it is precisely the uniqueness of the rise of the early church that forces us to say: never mind analogies, what happened? [36]

(d) No Real Evidence?

The third objection to treating the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event is more varied. Here I draw together various disparate aspects of recent research and writing on the subject. The basic point is that the apparent evidence for the resurrection (i.e. the gospel accounts and the testimony of Paul) can be explained away. I shall return to some of these discussions later; here I want simply to clear another potential 'Road Closed' sign out of the way.

There have been two different, though related, 'Road Closed' signs under this heading. The first, common throughout post-Bultmannian New Testament studies, has been the attempt to analyze the material according to its hypothetical tradition-history. What naive readers think of as a target at which to aim the arrow of history is in fact a trick of light and shade, somewhere between the observer and what appears to be a target, which has created instead nothing more than a target-shaped mirage.

It has proved difficult to subject the resurrection stories to form-critical analysis, though this has not stopped intrepid souls from making the attempt. [37] But the range of suggestions about which group in the early church wanted to add which pebble to the growing pile of stones in the tradition, and then about what the different evangelists or their sources intended to convey to their readers in their turn, has grown enormous of late, as one can see from the bewildering range surveyed by Gerd Lüdemann. [38] And the problem with all such theories is that they are themselves based on nothing more than elaborate guesswork. We simply do not know very much about the early church, and certainly not enough to make the kind of guesses that are on offer in this area. When traditio-historical study (the examination of hypothetical stages by which the written gospels came into existence) builds castles in the air, the ordinary historian need not feel a second-class citizen for refusing to rent space in them. [39]

The second way of explaining away the evidence, notable especially in the work of Crossan, is to apply to the texts a ruthless hermeneutic of suspicion. [40] This too results in a form of tradition-history. Now, however, instead of offering suggestions as to which theological or pastoral point the tradition might be making, we are offered political ones: power-plays in which the accreditation of different apostles or would-be apostles is fought out on the battleground of (fictitious) resurrection narratives. Crossan declares that the resurrection narratives trivialize Christianity, turning it away from its origins as an aphoristic alternative-lifestyle movement and into a collection of power-seeking factions. What looks like a target is the cunning work of power-brokers trying to get people to shoot arrows in the wrong direction.

What is more, Crossan traces the origins of resurrection stories themselves to an educated, middle-class scribal movement which developed away from the pure, early peasant roots of Jesus himself, and of the early 'Q' people, into a more bourgeois and establishment-minded organization. The resurrection narratives are thus declared worthless as history: they are projected politics, and the politics (what is more) of the wrong sort of people, the wicked educated scribes instead of the noble virtuous peasants.

With Lüdemann and Crossan, and the dozens of scholars who offer similar accounts, it would of course be easy to offer a kind of ad hominem rebuttal. Liidemann himself stands within a highly developed tradition­history, in which the post-Bultmannian world has gone on adding hypothetical stones to a pile which itself originated in guesswork. Crossan himself uses his historical hypotheses, sometimes in a none-too-subtle manner, as scribal political ploys against groups in today's church and society often non-scribal groups! that he regards as dangerous. [41] In his own terms, quoted earlier, it looks as though Crossan is saying it can't be done when he means that it shouldn't be.

Such replies do not, of course, advance the argument. But they alert us to a phenomenon not sufficiently remarked upon. A hermeneutic of suspicion in one area is routinely balanced by a hermeneutic of credulity in another. [42] Neither Liidemann's alternative scenario of Easter, in which Peter and Paul experience fantasies brought on by grief and guilt respectively, nor Crossan's, in which a group of scribal Christians begin, years after the crucifixion, to study the scriptures and to speculate about Jesus' fate, is based on any evidence whatsoever. Those who feel the force of Marxsen's doubts over evidence for Jesus' resurrection ought to be even more anxious about these reconstructions. In particular, the common traditio-historical scenarios owe a good deal more to nineteenth- and twentieth-century theories about how early Christians 'must' have preached and lived than to any sustained attempt to reconstruct the worldviews and mindsets of actual communities in the first century. [43] The suggestions on offer as to what the evangelists, their sources and earlier redactors or handers-on of tradition were wanting to convey to their communities are usually remarkably trite, and have more in common with the piety of post-reformation (and often post-Enlightenment) Europe than with early Judaism or Christianity. When all is said and done, the historian is still bound to address the question: how did Christianity actually start, and why did it take the shape it did? Despite their ingenuity, the very different solutions of Lüdemann and Crossan are not, as we shall see, capable of answering that question in terms which make sense within actual first-century history. This objection to the study of Easter as a historical phenomenon, like the first two, will not hold water. Those who say the target cannot be seen do not seem to be looking in the right direction.

Part 2


1. For the details, see Murphy-O'Connor 1998 [1980]; Walker 1999.

2. See JVG 109-12.

3. Substantial bibliographies on the resurrection, in addition to those in other works mentioned here, are available in e.g. Wissman, Stemberger, Hoffman et al. 1979; Alves 1989, 519-37; Ghiberti and Borgonovo 1993; Evans 2001, 526-9. A full-scale bibliography by G. Habermas is, I understand, due to be produced shortly. There have been several recent symposia on the resurrection: e.g. Avis 1993a; Barton and Stanton 1994; D'Costa 1996; Davis, Kendall and O'Collins 1997; Longenecker 1998; Porter, Hayes and Tombs 1999; Avemarie and Lichtenberger 2001; Mainville and Marguerat 2001; Bieringer et al. 2002. Cf. too Ex Auditu 1993. The major monographs with which I have been in implicit dialogue throughout include Evans 1970; Perkins 1984; Carnley 1987; Riley 1995; Wedderburn 1999; and, in rather different categories, Barr 1992, Lüdemann 1994 and Crossan 1998. (On Lüdemann see now Rese 2002.) Older works, notably Moule 1968; Marxsen 1970 [1968]; Fuller 1971, are presupposed (often with as much disagreement as agreement), but there has been little space for detailed interaction, any more than with recent continental scholarship, e.g. Oberlinner 1986; Müller 1998; Pesch 1999. On Marxsen and Fuller, see the useful critique in Alston 1997. I acknowledge a debt, too, to Gerald O'Collins, whose many works on the resurrection (e.g. 1973; 1987; 1988; 1993; 1995 ch. 4) have continued to stimulate, even where, again, I maintain some disagreements. I also here salute C. F. D. Moule, the opening remarks of whose 1967 monograph seem as relevant as ever. To the logical shape of his argument, though not its substance or in every respect its conclusions, I accord the sincerest form of flattery (cf. too Moule and Cupitt 1972).

4 See Via 2002, 83, 87, 91.

5. Carnley 1987, esp. ch. 2. Coakley 2002 ch. 8 takes Carnley as her starting-point, and never, to my mind, sees the deep flaws in his position.

6. A different though related position has been detected in Barth: 'claiming historical reality for the resurrection and yet denying historians the right to pronounce on the matter' (O'Collins 1973, 90, 99; see Coakley 2002, 134f.). There is, sadly, no space in this work to discuss Barth's contribution to the subject; a good way in is via Torrance 1976, another extremely valuable work which cannot here find more than an occasional mention.

7. Williams 2000, 194.

8. Moule 1967, 78. See too 79: 'the alternatives are not either mere history coupled with a rationalistic estimate of Jesus . . . or commitment to a preached but unauthenticated Lord.' The Christian creed, he says, 'is not a series of assertions made in a vacuum', but relates inescapably to an event, which is itself 'particular, yet transcendental'. My only quarrel with that is the 'yet', which seems to me to concede too much to the Enlightenment's split­level worldview (see NTPG Part Il).

9. As Coakley 2002, ch. 8 seems to imply. I fully agree with Coakley that the resurrection raises questions of a renewed epistemology as well as of a renewed ontology, but she seems to me to collapse the latter into the former, implying that 'seeing the risen Jesus' is a coded way of speaking about a Christian view of the world, ignoring the sharp distinction in all the early writers between the meetings with the risen Jesus during the short period after his resurrection and subsequent Christian experience.

10. It would of course be logically possible for someone to conclude (a) that the early Christians did not think Jesus had been bodily raised and (b) that in fact he had been. I know of no one, scholar or otherwise, who has taken this view. More importantly, it is vital not to collapse one's own view of what 'must have' happened, or what 'could' or even 'should' have happened, into pseudo-historical statements of what the early Christians claimed had happened. On this, see O'Collins 1995, 89f.

11. As Davis 1997, 132-4 notes, it is easier to find scholars declaring that Jesus was not 'resuscitated' than to find a single writer who says that he was. The denial of 'resuscitation' is frequently used as the thin end of a wedge towards the denial of 'resurrection' itself, which as we shall see is a non sequitur.

12. The Latin resurrectio seems to be a Christian coinage; the earliest refs. noted in LS 1585 are Tert. Res. 1 and Aug. City of God 22.28, and then the Vulgate of the gospels. The standard articles in TDNT etc. are presupposed in what follows. See too the recent study of O'Donnell 1999.

13. Caird 1997 [1980], 50.

14. cf. Mk. 9.9f.; Lk. 18.34.

15. cf. NTPG 320-34.

16. Against e.g. Avis 1993b, who implies that this is mainly a modem problem.

17. Dt. 30.12-14.

18. Rom. 10.6-10; cf. Wright, Romans, 658-66 (with ref. also to the use of the passage in contemporary Jewish writings).

19. An example taken almost at random from popular Christian writing: McDowell 1981.

20. For fuller details, cf. NTPG ch. 4; and Wright, 'Dialogue', 245-52.

21. Contemporary English usage is confused at this point, with 'historical' often being used where, properly, 'historic' is meant; see below. Thus a sign on the A446, south of Lichfield, points to 'The Historical Cock Inn', though no one has ever, so far as I know, denied its existence or supposed that it only appeared to the eye of faith.

22. Plato Phaedr. 274c-275a, has Socrates warning against substituting written documents for oral traditions: people will stop using their memories, he says. See too Xen. Symp. 3.5; Diog. Laert. 7.54-6. In the early church, Papias is famous for having declared that he preferred living witnesses (Eus. HE 3.39.2-4).

23. A good example is provided by Nineham 1965, 16, discussed by Wedderburn 1999, 9: 'historical' events are those which are 'fully and exclusively human and entirely confined within the limits of this world'.

24. cf. e.g. Johnson 1995; 1999.

25. cf. JVG 109-12; and e.g. Johnson, as prev. note.

26. Crossan 1991, xxvii. For Crossan's account of the resurrection, see below.

27. Marxsen 1970 [1968] ch. 1; Marxsen 1968.

28. Crossan thinks the Gospel of Peter, or at least this part of it, is early, but would still not say, of course, that it is in any sense historically reliable; see below, 592-6.

29. See the various discussions in e.g. Moule 1968; Evans 1970, 170-83.

30. Polkinghome 1994, ch. 2, esp. 31f. So, for that matter, do textual critics: Professor Alden Smith of Baylor University points out to me that the great C18 classicist Richard Bentley made exactly this sort of move in restoring the digamma (an archaic Greek letter) to certain passages in Homer whose metre would otherwise remain deficient. Via 2002, 82 is right to say that history moves from fragmentary evidence to full-blown reconstruction, but wrong to imply that this takes place in a kind of neutral zone free from all theological or religious presuppositions.

31. Troeltsch 1912-25, 2.732. Coakley 1993, 112 n. 14 suggests that if Pannenberg had used Troeltsch's more mature work on analogy (3.190f.) he would have found Troeltsch less vulnerable to the criticism he advances (see below).

32. cf. Hume 1975 [1777] section x, with the famous line: 'no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish.'

33. Pannenberg 1970 [1963] ch. 2; 1991-8 [1988-93], 2.343-63; 1996. See the incisive discussion in Coakley 1993, with other bibliography at 112 n. 6; Coakley 2002, 132-5.

34. See Wedderbum 1999, 19.

35. cf. NTPG Part IV; and below, Part III, esp. ch. 11.

36. On the question of analogy see now O'Collins 1999, in debate with Carnley 1997 in particular.

37. See below, 596f.

38. cf esp. Lüdemann 1994.

39. It is important to distinguish between different types of tradition-criticism: cf. Wright, 'Doing Justice to Jesus', 360-65.

40. cf. e.g. Crossan 1991, 395-416; 1998, 550-73.

41. See particularly Crossan 1995, an angry polemic against the work of Raymond Brown in particular.

42. cf. Caird 1997 [1980], 60f., speaking of 'those sceptics who find that they cannot believe the biblical account of the trial, death and resurrection of Jesus and undertake to tell us instead "what actually happened"': 'Anyone who takes [such conceits] seriously is more credulous than the most naive believer in the biblical text.' He concludes: 'We can respect the genuine agnostic who is content to live in doubt because he considers the evidence inadequate for belief, but not the spurious agnostic who prefers fantasy to evidence.' See too Williams 2002, 2: 'It is remarkable how complacent some "deconstructive" histories are about the status of the history that they deploy themselves.'

43. Not that some such serious attempts are not made; cf. e.g. Nodet and Taylor 1998; Theissen 1999.

©; Nicholas Thomas Wright 2003

This version: 26th May 2003

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