Resurrection revisited

Arguments over the Resurrection have raged back and forth for nearly 2,000 years. At first, people doubted whether it did happen. Later, with the rise of modern science, people believed that it could not have happened. But now, argues Andrew Brown, these questions have subtly changed: we realise no facts can be known without faith

Andrew Brown
Thursday 04 April 1996 23:02

The discovery last week of a chest in which the bones of someone named Jesus, son of Joseph, may have been stored alongside those of two Marys, a Matthew, and a Juda, son of Jesus, almost certainly adds nothing to anyone's understanding of what actually occurred after the crucifixion. But it has already been seized upon as ammunition in the war between believers, half-believers and unbelievers.

In Christian countries, three views have been held about the Resurrection in modern times. They can be put crudely. The first is that Christ's tomb was empty. His body had been resurrected and was later physically encountered by his followers, so proving the truth of his claims about himself. The second is that his body rotted, proving the falsehood of Christian beliefs about him. The third is that we cannot by the methods of history discover for sure what happened to his body, but what matters is the effects of the belief that the Resurrection had happened.

The most vivid, and widely misunderstood expression of this last view was provided by the former Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins, when he said that the Resurrection "was not just a conjuring trick with bones", although, like many a better philosopher, he never managed to explain quite what it was.

The clearest contradiction of this came from his successor, the Rt Rev Michael Turnbull, when his appointment to Durham was announced, who said that if you had had a video camera at the time and pointed it at the tomb, you would have seen it empty, and outside it, visible on the tape, the figure of the risen Jesus talking to the women, just as Mark's Gospel says in what most scholars agree is the earliest description of the event, written perhaps 40 years later:

[Mark 16:2] "Very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they were saying to one another, `Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?' And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back. It was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, `Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him.' "

That is the first description of the Resurrection. It is not the first assertion that it happened. That comes in one of the letters of Paul, written before any of the Gospels, in around 50AD:

[1 Cor 15:3] "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me."

This wording, says Dr Tom Wright, the Dean of Lichfield Cathedral conceals an important point in an oral culture: Paul, when he says that the knowledge "has been delivered to him", is promising that his account is accurate and authentic. He is putting forward the names of the other people to whom Jesus appeared as referees, so to say, of his own experience.

This traditional view has an opposite, namely that the Resurrection was a fraud, perpetrated by the first disciples, perhaps unconsciously, because they could not bear the disappointment of all their hopes and love when Jesus was killed. This is first raised in St Matthew's Gospel, in which the soldiers who had been guarding the tomb are ordered: "Tell people, `His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep' and this story has been spread among the Jews to this day."

In other words, a video camera, pointed at the tomb, would have shown a group of disciples rolling away the stone, dragging the body away into the night.

Given that all this happened roughly 1,966 years ago, it seems at first surprising that anything new could be added by modern science to these disputes. In fact, archaeology, history and science have all been pressed into service in the modern reruns of these arguments.

For Tom Wright, the historic evidence points towards the truth of the Resurrection and of the empty tomb, if only because it is unlikely that a mere hallucination could have had such tremendous effects. "There were lots of messianic movements between 50BC and 150AD and in all cases they ended with the violent death of the Saviour proving that he was not the Messiah. Why did the Christians alone believe that the Messiah had come even after he had been killed?"

But historical inquiry of this sort has traditionally been used as a weapon against Christian orthodoxy and still is. The "Jesus Seminar", for example, a group of American scholars, is determined to produce an edition of the sayings of Jesus which can be trusted as authentic, and one of their principles of selection is that any of the Gospel sayings where he seems to be identifying himself as the Son of God, in the sense that later Christian orthodoxy would interpret the phrase, is a later accretion.

According to the mainstream of this search for a historic figure beneath the Gospels, Jesus himself, as a pious itinerant rabbi and exorcist, would have thought it blasphemous or insane to claim he was the second person of the Trinity. This view is put most forcefully in this country by the Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby, who in a series of books has argued that Christianity as we know it was essentially the invention of St Paul, and that Jesus as a devout, if mistaken, Jew would have been horrified by the use made of his message after his death.

However, this is not the only reinterpretation of Jesus on offer in the light of 20th-century understandings.

Nicholas Lash, Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, believes that post- modernism has made the Resurrection narratives easier to understand: "Post- modernism should mean, and sometimes does, that we are becoming able to think about the period in Western culture from the early seventeenth century to yesterday as an episode, rather than as the framework through which every sensible person thinks about everything.

"One of the defining features of the `modern' period was the simple conviction that statements are either simple factual statements or simple fictional statements. It had absolutely no space for narrative: if you told a story, it was only to illustrate a point.

"The balance of evidence is to me that they did find the tomb empty. But that is a historical question, not a theological one."

The tangle of theology and history is at the heart of all these arguments. The Resurrection cannot be understood as either purely historical or purely theological, according to Professor Lash. "St Thomas Aquinas asked whether it would have been `fitting' for the disciples to witness the Resurrection: in other words, whether the Bishop with a video camera would have seen anything; and his answer, in the end, was that `the disciples did see him rising, when, with the eyes of faith, they saw living him whom they knew dead.'"

This position can seem close to some modern attempts to explain away all miracle in the Bible on the grounds that what really happened was perfectly natural but had been misunderstood by ignorant Galilean peasants. However, post-modernist Christianity would say that a miracle can never be reduced to an event: a miracle is an event with a meaning. A rain of miniature winged pigs on Beckenham, however improbable, would not qualify as a miracle unless it also demonstrated God's nature.

Many Christian scientists, such as Dr Fraser Watts, a psychologist who is the first holder of the Starbridge chair in Science and Theology at the University of Cambridge, are reluctant to talk about miracles as breaking the laws of nature.

"I don't want to talk about the suspension of the laws of nature; rather about their transcendence," he says.

Dr Watts believes his own studies into consciousness provide a hint into how such a transcendence might exist. "As nature develops and becomes increasingly complex, particularly in the context of the human brain, which is the most complex thing known to us, new properties such as consciousness develop. And consciousness, in turn, transforms the processes from which it has arisen, so that thoughts can leave their mark on the physical structures of the brain.

"In a similar way, the Resurrection could involve a transformation of the natural creation, not just a freaky spiritual event. Scientific progress has provided us with a model or analogy which enables us to begin to make sense of such things. It is not an explanation, but it is a better model than we had 100 years ago; and it is certainly not science showing us that the Resurrection is impossible."

Most arguments about the Resurrection could only be settled by the reappearance of the body in question. Yet the argument does progress. During most of the past 150 years, it seemed obvious that the story must have some relation to "what really happened": that somewhere beneath or behind the words of the Gospels was a set of facts that could settle the wrangling for ever. Now, we are less confident that facts of this sort have ever existed anywhere. Facts come only embedded in stories; and the facts of the Resurrection cannot, we now understand, ever be seen without preconceptions.

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