Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Resurrection

The bottom line miracle of Christianity is The Resurrection. It is The Resurrection which completes the act of atonement; it is The Resurrection which establishes the promise of eternal life.

Without The Resurrection Christianity loses much of its allure for the masses.

Fundamentalist Christians claim The Resurrection is a historical fact based upon the following:

- Jesus was executed
- Jesus was entombed
- Jesus’ tomb was found empty
- Jesus after his resurrection appeared to many eye witnesses
- Jesus’ appearance emboldened the apostles to preach Christianity at the risk of their lives

They then move on and address “theories” that supposedly attempt to explain the events as if these theories were the only issues to resolve. These “theories” are typically fairly weak straw men and include things like he didn’t really die on the cross and the apostles stole his body.

The problem of course is once you’ve moved into this ballpark, you’ve already accepted the empty tomb or the appearance of a walking, breathing Jesus subsequent to his crucifixion.

To my mind these theories are irrelevant. I want to go back to the five basic points identified above.

Jesus was executed
Undoubtedly this is a true statement if you accept that Jesus was a historical figure. Despite the paucity of evidence, I believe he was. But who was this Jesus and why was he executed? And not just executed, but executed by crucifixion; a method of execution reserved by the Romans for political insurrection or especially despised criminals.

Crucifixion was intended to be highly visible. It could take days to die. Even after death the victim would be left hanging as a warning to others. Crucifixion was designed to be a deterrent. Crucifixion by Rome would not be a penalty for something viewed as blasphemy by the Jews.

This raises three questions. First, what was it that Jesus did, or that Pilate was convinced he did, to warrant an insurrectionist’s execution? Second, why did Jesus die after only a few hours? Crucifixion was often death by suffocation as the body weakened and couldn’t support itself to breathe. It was not unusual for a victim of crucifixion to suffer for several days. Yet according to the gospels, Jesus’ death was relatively quick. The Gospel of Mark alludes to this point in Mark 15:44 “Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead.” Finally, why would the Romans be willing to release Jesus’ body rather than leave it as a warning to others?

Exactly what act of insurrection Jesus got executed for isn’t clear in the gospels. John Dominic Crossan believes it was the uproar he caused in the temple. Others have pointed out that Jesus may have hung around with a bad crowd. Simon Zelotes is thought by some to have been a Zealot and there is some debate over whether the Iscariot in Judas Iscariot indicates a place of origin or that Judas was a member of the Sicarii, a first century group of political assassins that took out their victims at close quarters with daggers.

If Judas was an assassin, turning in Jesus in exchange for saving his own hide makes some sense. But why would the Jewish or Roman authorities look upon Jesus as a bigger catch than a known assassin?

If Jesus really did go around claiming he was King of the Jews, that would have done it.

The Romans generally took a dim view of claims of that sort by people that weren’t on their payroll or acting with their approval. They would have been especially touchy about it if it occurred in a Roman Province. Even a class three province looked upon as the armpit of the empire.

I suspect that Jesus was a wandering Rabbi that might have gone a little overboard while basking in the “adulation” of his adoring fans. He really came to believe that he could trigger the onset of the Kingdom of God on earth by riding into Jerusalem and declaring himself king.

He would have no conception of the real balance of power between Rome and Judea. He only knew what he saw. A limited Roman presence of auxiliary troops up against 50,000 Passover Pilgrims that I’m sure he was convinced would support him. Didn’t seem to have worked out that way though did it?

As for why he didn’t linger for days on the cross, I imagine that might have been related to the physical abuse he is reported to have suffered. It wasn’t totally unknown for the trauma of being crucified, especially if by nails, or the loss of blood to lead to a rapid death rather than a lingering one. He could also have died from internal bleeding or a massive stroke brought on by a subdural hematoma. There’s no lack of explanations as to why Jesus died relatively quickly.

Pilate, or whoever was making the decisions, may have yielded to taking down the body simply to keep the peace. It was the Passover falling on the Sabbath after all. The Joseph of Arimathea story implies it could also have been to placate a rich or influential family. The question is what happened to the body after it was taken down?

Jesus was entombed
Well, maybe. The four Gospels differ slightly on the details here. Certainly John’s account of the legs of the prisoners being broken to speed up death before being taken down seems accurate, although I doubt they would make an exception with Jesus. Soldiers are very literal, especially when disobeying an order can be fatal.

All the gospels agree that Jesus was laid in a tomb cut out of rock. There is an inconsistency as to whether it was Joseph of Arimathea acting alone (Mark, Matthew & Luke) or with Nicodemas (John), whether it was Joseph’s tomb (Matthew), whether the tomb was in a garden (John), whether the tomb was sealed (Matthew) and whether the tomb was guarded (Matthew).

We only have the gospels word that Jesus was placed in a rock tomb. A rock tomb also sounds a big extravagant for a peasant nobody doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s because Jesus wasn’t a peasant nobody. Typical Roman procedure would be to have tossed the bodies of the condemned to the dogs or had them burned. That would have made a bodily resurrection a tad difficult so clearly it would be necessary to figure out a way to avoid that. Enter the shadowy Joseph of Arimathea.

Joseph is not mentioned previously and never mentioned again. He is described as a member of the Jewish Council (Mark, Luke), a member of the council who had not consented to their decision regarding Jesus (Luke), a rich man (Matthew), a man waiting for the Kingdom of God (Mark, Luke), a disciple of Jesus (Matthew), a secret disciple of Jesus who feared the Jews (John) and from the Judean town of Arimathea (Luke).

About the only thing this incident has going for it is that Joseph is identified as claiming Jesus’ body in all four gospels. It’s one of the few things that are consistent in all four accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection. Other than that, I find this tale highly suspicious for a number of reasons.

The first is it’s just too convenient. Is it possible that a member of the Jewish Council would act in such a manner if he felt an injustice had been done? It’s possible, but to be honest, not bloody likely unless there was some tie between Joseph and Jesus.

Aside from the issue of getting the Jewish authorities all bent out of shape let’s remember that Jesus was most likely executed for an act that was viewed by the Roman authorities as one of rebellion. What was to prevent the Roman authorities from deciding that Joseph was in collusion with the rebel Jesus and should get a cross all his own?

The second is the tinkering with the tale that evangelists other than Mark feel is necessary. The story in Mark is fairly straightforward. Joseph is a member of the council waiting for the Kingdom of God. Pilate, after checking with a centurion that Jesus was in fact dead, simply releases the body.

Mark presents no rationale for Joseph’s intervention.

Matthew, perhaps finding this a tad unlikely, makes Joseph a rich man and a disciple of Jesus. That Joseph was rich implies possible additional influence or perhaps that some money changed hands. Making him a disciple of Jesus provides a rationale for Joseph’s intervention.

The problem with Matthew’s tinkering is that it makes it more likely for the Romans to take a dim view of Joseph. If Jesus was a rebel then his disciples would be considered rebels as well. Wasn’t this why they were all supposedly hiding and why Peter denied knowing Jesus? Plus, if he was rich, that would make him a potential financier of rebellion and a prime target for Rome’s attention. He would be a bigger prize than Jesus.

Luke also provides a rationale. He labels Joseph an honest and upright man and a member of the council that did not consent to condemning Jesus. It’s actually a better rationale than Matthew’s. Men have been known to do strange things based upon conscience.

John really does damage control. Not only does he have Joseph accompanied by Nicodemus, who was Jesus’ foil in the famous play on words about being reborn in John 3, he makes Joseph a secret disciple of Jesus so the Roman suspicions aren’t aroused.

Then there is the question of where exactly is Arimathea? There is no record of a town of exactly that name. Various towns in the vicinity of Jerusalem have been suggested as possibilities but no one has any concrete evidence as to where Arimathea was or even if it actually existed.

All of this implies to me that Joseph of Arimathea may be a work of fiction whose sole purpose is to rescue the body of Jesus from destruction.

In other words I find the story that Jesus’ body was placed in a rock tomb shaky.

This doesn’t necessarily negate the accuracy of the resurrection. It simply makes the story of the empty tomb unlikely.

But, let’s assume Joseph did exist and he did claim the body. Why did this rich and powerful man choose to intervene? This seems unlikely without some sort of tie to Jesus or his family. If it was due to some sort of family tie, then why does he decide to bury the body himself, without any of the familial mourning and ceremony required, rather than return it to the family for burial?

Allow me to suggest that the sketchiness of the story implies that his intention was to return it to the family. Why would he bother? Perhaps it was as a courtesy from one rich, influential family to another?

I can hear the protests even before the ink dries. What do you mean rich? Jesus came from a poor family. Not necessarily, but that’s a topic for another day.

Jewish practices call for the body to be buried as soon as practical as long as the burial did not violate the Sabbath. Unfortunately the Sabbath was about to begin so it was either bury the body before sundown or wait until the end of the Sabbath the following sundown.

Dawn in Jerusalem during the early spring would be around 6 A.M. Sunset would be a little after 7 P.M. According to Mark and Matthew Jesus was still alive at the ninth hour which would be around 3 P.M.

That would be cutting it a little close. Assuming Joseph of Arimathea actually existed, then it seems like he was making temporary arrangements until a final resolution could be worked out after the Sabbath.

Luckily for the peasant portion of Jesus’ disciples, who were unlikely to have much to do with a rich member of the Jewish council, several women from Jesus’ entourage saw where Joseph put the body. They then showed up Sunday morning intending to perform the formal preparation for burial but, according to the story, when they arrived, the tomb was empty.

Jesus’ tomb was found empty
The women arrive at Jesus’ tomb a full twelve hours after the end of the Sabbath. The account of what they find varies wildly among the four gospels.

The simplest tale is from Mark. The woman find the stone rolled back and a young man dressed in a white robe who tells them “Don't be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.' "

Take out the “He has risen” and this could almost be someone at the tomb explaining that the body has been removed and is being returned to Jesus’ home in Galilee for final burial.

I find this a lot more likely than he rose from the dead but it has a number of problems with it not the least of which is the time it would take to get the body to Galilee.

At the other extreme is Matthew’s description. Matthew really lets himself go. In his version the tomb is sealed and guarded which would sort of contradict the idea that the internment was temporary.

When the women arrive they’re treated to a violent earthquake and the sight of an angel descending from heaven that rolls back the stone. The guards are so afraid they start shaking and become “like dead men.” Note that since the stone is rolled back after the women arrive, either Jesus didn’t need the stone rolled back to leave or, for some bizarre reason, it had been removed and then replaced.

The angel is also dressed in white (what else?) and gives a similar speech to the women as the young man. The women then leave “filled with joy” as opposed to trembling, bewildered and afraid which is how they leave according to Mark.

Just as a side note, Matthew then has the guards being bribed by the chief priests to say that Jesus’ disciples came and stole the body while they were asleep. Ooops. If these were Roman troops sleeping on duty wouldn’t keep them out of trouble (as Matthew has the priests claim), it would get them a death sentence. If they were temple guards, then what the Roman governor thought would be irrelevant. Of course they couldn’t be Jews and work on the Sabbath. In my humble opinion, the story of the guards has almost zero chance of being true.

In Luke the women find the stone rolled back and enter the cave but fail to locate the body of Jesus. Then two men, “in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them,” and then proceeded to give a slightly more instructional explanation including reminding them that Jesus had told them “The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.”

John’s story is more than a little different. Here it’s Mary Magdalene alone who approaches the tomb and finds the stone rolled away. She runs to get Simon Peter and “the other disciple, the one Jesus loved.” The three return to the tomb and find the linen and the shroud but no body. The two disciples then leave and Mary remains outside the tomb weeping.

Mary then looks into the tomb and sees two angels who ask her why she is crying. She replies “They have taken my Lord away, and I don't know where they have put him.”

She then turns and encounters someone she first believes is the gardener (remember the tomb was in a garden) who asks her why she is crying and who she is looking for. She replies "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” He calls her name and she then realizes that it’s not the gardener but Jesus himself who is standing there.

There is absolutely no way that these four accounts can be reconciled. The crucifixion accounts were reasonably similar. Some contained more details about certain things then others and there was some variation and poetic license but it all falls apart with the description of the alleged discovery of the empty tomb.

This has all the earmarks of a myth or an allegorical story that no one expects to stick to the facts. The taller the tale, the better seems to be the rule. I vote for Matthew as having the wildest, most improbable narration.

A simple sweep of Occam’s razor eliminates Joseph and the empty tomb altogether. Jesus’ body is removed from the cross and either tossed to wild animals or burned. When this becomes a problem because it makes a bodily resurrection harder to swallow by the unimaginative first century peasantry who are the earliest target of the Christian gospel, the rich council member and the empty tomb are invented.

As an alternative, the body of Jesus is claimed by Joseph, a friend or even possibly a member of Jesus’ influential family, and quietly buried in a dignified way without letting any of the peasant riff-raff he’s fallen in with get involved. The tomb was indeed empty because before Mary and the others arrive, it’s already been moved by Jesus’ family to its final resting place.

Mark, most likely the first evangelist, keeps it simple which is critical to a successful lie. The others can’t resist fancying it up a bit perhaps because the story wasn’t generally accepted as true anyway. It needn’t be accepted as true because it’s not essential to the resurrection.

Let’s face it; a God that created the universe wouldn’t have much of a problem restoring a body for his son regardless of what happened to the first one.

Jesus after his resurrection appeared to many eye witnesses
That sort of depends upon which gospel you read. Acts also gets into the act so to speak. It also depends, in the case of Mark, upon which version of the gospel you read.

According to the earliest manuscripts the gospel of Mark ended at Mark 16:8. Mark 16:9-20 are generally considered to be a second century addition. If this is true then either Mark had no post resurrection passages or those original passages have been lost.

A minority of scholars do argue that Mark 16:9-20 are in fact genuine. Since I can’t look at lost passages I’ll just assume that folks like F.H.A. Scrivener are correct and the passages are the originals.

According to Mark 16:9-20 Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene, then to “two of them” “who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping.”

Jesus then appears to the Eleven and rebukes them for “their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.”

That adds up to 1+2+11 = 14, but there’s no specific statement that these were the only people he appeared to although it would seem, if the passages are genuine, a little silly to leave other appearances out.

Jesus tells the Eleven, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well."

But of course Christians aren’t allowed to play with venomous snakes or drink deadly poison on purpose because that would be “testing God.” How’s that for a rationalization? So I suppose no believer has ever been poisoned to death? What about those in Jonestown that were forced to drink the Kool-Aid against their will? They survive that?

I’m not aware of any confirmed driving out of demons or healing through the laying on of hands either. If there is one passage that clearly demonstrates that the bible, or at least the bible with Mark 16:9-20, is not the inerrant word of God, this is the one. If you disagree then either drive out a demon, speak in a language you don’t know (and I’m not talking about the gibberish that Christians usually claim is speaking in tongues) or heal the sick.

Matthew, as opposed to his wild tomb story, has the simplest post resurrection description. According to Matthew, Jesus appears to the Eleven in Galilee and gives them The Great Commission, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

The first people Luke describes Jesus appearing to are “two of them,” which I assume refers to two of those that didn’t believe the women about the empty tomb, apparently named Cleopas and Simon. Interestingly they don’t recognize him until he sits down to eat with them.

Next Luke describes Jesus’ appearance as the two are relaying their experience to an unbelieving “Eleven and those with them.” They think he’s a ghost so he shows them his hands and feet and eats some fish to convince them it’s him in the flesh.

Jesus then opens “their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” and tells them “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."

So, according to Luke, Jesus appeared to at least 13 people plus how many comprise “those with them.” But again Luke doesn’t claim these were the first or only people to whom Jesus appeared.

John has by far the most extensive post resurrection description. He has Jesus appearing to his disciples minus Thomas and saying to them "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you."

He then breathes on them and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."

Jesus then makes a special appearance to convince doubting Thomas when he utters the famous phrase “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

John then appears to end with the John 20:30-31, sometimes called “The Appendix,” which says “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

However there is a John 21, sometimes called “The Appendix to The Appendix” which continues the tale of post resurrection appearances. It describes the miraculous catching of 153 fish, a reinstatement of Peter, including a prophecy of Peter’s death, and some rather mysterious comments related to the “disciple whom Jesus loved.”

Despite all this “Appendix” stuff, there isn’t a single manuscript without John 21. So, if it’s a later addition, it wasn’t much later.

Acts then says Jesus stayed with the apostles for 40 days during which he commanded them "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."

When they ask him when he will restore the Kingdom of God he tells them "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

Well that’s a lot of background and sort of a sneaky way to get you to read the bible. Don’t take my word for it though, check. I used the New International Version (NIV) for the quotes.

Again we have wildly varying descriptions that really can’t be reconciled regardless of how hard apologists play the “but he didn’t say that didn’t happen” card. John has Jesus bestowing the Holy Spirit directly on the apostles, Luke and Acts has them waiting until Pentecost and Mark and Matthew don’t mention it at all. You would think it would be kind of a critical thing to at least mention wouldn’t you?

Like the empty tomb, this has all the earmarks of a myth or legend that grew with the telling and grew in different ways in different places. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe a word of it.

Jesus’ appearance emboldened the apostles to preach Christianity at the risk of their lives
Technically it was the alleged descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost that accomplished this but I’m willing to equate the two.

Is this really true? Popular myth has the disciples trembling and hiding from the authorities and then suddenly marching out as men going to war to preach the gospel.

A couple of points, first, people are capable of screwing themselves up to do some ridiculously brave things if the situation is right. This is especially true in the face of a shared or potential tragedy. Human nature being what it is the supernatural is not required for there to emerge a determination to do battle against insurmountable odds for a belief or a principle regardless of the danger. Think Socrates, Thermopylae, Sir Thomas More and Valley Forge.

Second, were their lives really in danger? There is this mistaken notion that Rome persecuted Christians continually and right from the start. The reality is that Rome was fairly tolerant of the myriad of different religions practiced in the empire. However, they didn’t have any concept of the separation of church and state. The state respected the gods and the gods blessed the state. Religion and politics were 100% interwoven. As polytheists the Romans had room for lots of gods and had no problem with you worshiping yours as long as you also respected and sacrificed to the empire’s gods.

The Jews were exempt. While the Romans didn’t particular find the Jew’s one and only one god philosophy particularly attractive, they did recognize that it was of immense antiquity and the Romans had a healthy respect for anything that old.

The trouble started when what the Romans viewed as just another new mystery religion called Christianity claimed the exemption accorded to the Jews. If you think the Romans were upset imagine how the Jews felt? Christianity and Judaism got off on the wrong foot right from the start.

There was some persecution but it was sporadic and there certainly wouldn’t be any right away. As long as they weren’t pitching rebellion, the disciples were probably fairly safe while simply pitching some new fangled religion. Not completely safe, but safe enough.

Third, while Christianity would like everyone to believe that its rise was a monolithic growth of apostolic based faith with the occasional heresy to squash, history tells a very different story.

There were many brands of Christianity from the Gnostic creeds to what Bart Ehrman calls the proto orthodox. Paul’s letters clearly show that he was constantly contesting against those preaching other creeds and Acts implies the tension that existed between Paul and his mission to the Gentiles and the more traditionally Jewish philosophy in Jerusalem under the leadership of Jesus’ brother James.

To be honest I find this argument to be more wishful thinking than reality. What we know today as Orthodox Christianity as represented by the Nicene Creed doesn’t begin to emerge as a clear consensus until the church in Rome begins to exert its influence throughout the rest of the Mediterranean.

Therefore I’m sorry, but I pretty much reject this argument as well.

One more point that needs to be covered is Josephus, the only independent contemporary evidence for the resurrection. The Testamonium Flavianum states:

"Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, [if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.] He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. [He was the Christ;] and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, [for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him;] and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day."

There are three opinions about this passage; that it’s completely genuine, that it’s completely a later Christian interpolation and that’s it’s a partial Christian interpolation represented by the bracketed phrases.

Josephus, a Pharisaic Jew would NEVER call Jesus the Christ nor is it likely he would blithely state that he appeared to them “alive again the third day” as the divine prophets had foretold after being crucified. Therefore it seems to me that at best this is a partial Christian interpolation.

Clearly the resurrection of Jesus is far from a historical fact. Feel free to believe the gospel accounts if that’s your inclination but there are clearly problems with the conflicting stories of the empty tomb and the post resurrection appearances.

You might even get me to accept the story of Joseph of Arimathea but that would be about as far as I would go. If Mary Magdalene and a group of women discovered an empty tomb, it was simply because the body had already been moved from its temporary place of rest by quite ordinary means.

Only slightly less likely is that Joseph and the tomb are a fiction created to get around the objection that Jesus could not have been bodily resurrected because his body had been destroyed.

I find either explanation far more likely than the one Christianity would like us to believe.

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