Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Review of The Resurrection of Jesus

In an earlier post, I discussed my personal reaction to reading "The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and NT Wright in Dialogue." Now I will finally summarize their positions:

Wright's argument summarized:
"1. The striking and consistent Christian alterations of the Jewish belief in resurrection rule out the possibility that the belief in Jesus' resurrection was generated spontaneously from within its Jewish context; rather, the early Christians ascribe the origin of this belief to the facts of Jesus' empty tomb and postmortem appearances.
2. Neither the empty tomb nor the postmortem appearances are individually sufficient to explain the origin of the disciples' belief in Jesus' resurrection.
3. However, the empty tomb and postmortem appearances are jointly sufficient to explain the origin of belief in Jesus' resurrection.
4. The meaning of the term resurrection in its Jewish context was such that belief in Jesus' could not have emerged unless it were known that his body had disappeared and that he had been discovered to be alive once more.
5. Rival explanations of the origin of the belief in Jesus' resurrection do not possess comparable explanatory power.
6. Therefore, it is historically highly probable that Jesus' tomb was indeed found empty and that the disciples did indeed encounter him alive and well after his death.
7. The empty tomb and postmortem appearance of Jesus are best explained by the hypothesis that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead." p. 170

Crossan's view summarized:
Crossan agrees with points 1 and 2 above. However, he disagrees with point 3. He grants the empty tomb's discovery and risen apparitions but believes that was not enough to lead the apostles to the conclusion that Jesus was resurrected. He believes these events lead, at most, to the belief in Jesus being exalted to heaven. Crossan maintains that the resurrection faith came about due to a 3-fold combination of the empty tomb, postmortem appearances, and "Jesus' own proclamation that the kingdom of God was not just imminently future but already present, a proclamation that was not only individual vision but corporate program as his companions entered that kingdom by living as he did and thereby experiencing for themselves the power of its presence." Crossan thinks the apostles were compelled to make sense of both Jesus's kingdom teaching as well as the ongoing experiences of His continuing presence with them. This led to the radical belief that Jesus was resurrected bodily. The apostles believed that the general resurrection had begun with Jesus' own resurrection. The general resurrection was part of the "eschatological transformation of the world," or in other words, "God's Great Clean-Up of cosmic violence and injustice." The kingdom of God had arrived with power and would transform this world from one of injustice and violence to one of justice and peace.

In the end, Crossan is agnostic regarding Jesus' bodily resurrection, and believes the question of whether to view the resurrection literally or figuratively to be irrelevant to the Christian faith. He considers himself to be a Christian, though he views Jesus' resurrection as metaphorical. He is concerned with the meaning of the resurrection and how it compels us to live today. Crossan writes, "It means that God's Great Clean-Up of a world grown old in evil and impurity, injustice and violence has already begun and that it involves a period of human time from start to finish rather than an all-encompassing instant of divine time. It means this above all else: God's Great Clean-Up has begun (a first miracle!) and we are called to participate in it (a second miracle!)."

My view:
What I appreciated about both Wright and Crossan was that neither were content to let the resurrection be about future heavenly salvation of Christians. They were concerned that the resurrection has meaning about transforming the earth now through Christ's kingdom. One of the disasters in Christianity has been an exclusive focus on saving souls from hell. The result at times has been an increase in injustice and violence on earth, while saving souls at any cost. It has also decreased motivation to bring about peace and justice on earth, for the earth becomes a brief rest stop on our trip to eternity. The destination is all that matters. Who cares what the rest stop is like if you never make it to your destination?

It's another matter entirely whether the resurrection can have meaning metaphorically without the literal historical event to give it meaning. I suppose so, if one takes Jesus to be a prophet who taught spiritual truths about the kingdom of God being within us, transforming the world through our lives. The resurrection then becomes a way of understanding these teachings. However, I think Christianity loses it's exclusivity as The Way to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Crossan and Wright might both believe the kingdom of God is here, but they disagree on how and why one can come to participate in it.

Crossan continues to believe in the divine, though his studies no longer allow him to conceptualize the divine in orthodox Christian teachings. That is currently where I stand. I am attracted to Crossan's view, as it acknowledges limits in the historical data regarding the resurrection, while acknowledging a need and desire to transcend living for oneself to living for something beyond us, and for the world at large. However, I am aware that I can be criticized for not taking enough on faith as well as for taking too much on faith. I have criticized myself for doing both!

What do you think about Wright and Crossan's views? Is historical evidence what compels you to believe or disbelieve the resurrection? Is it personal experience with the divine? Can they both be valid ways of knowing? How do you know which form of knowing to use when these ways conflict?


  1. "Is historical evidence what compels you to believe or disbelieve the resurrection?"

    It seems to me that historical evidence for the resurrection is completely lacking, either for or against. The gospel accounts are so clearly theological stories, rather than factual histories, that I don't think we can know anything historical from them with a significant degree of confidence. If that means faith is required, I understand that, but I do not find within myself any compelling reason to believe that to be true.

    I like what you said about the disaster in Christianity of having an exclusive focus on saving souls from hell. Looking back on my evangelical beliefs, it seems like a gross caricature of religion, crude and foolish.

  2. "Crossan is agnostic regarding Jesus' bodily resurrection, and believes the question of whether to view the resurrection literally or figuratively to be irrelevant to the Christian faith. He considers himself to be a Christian, though he views Jesus' resurrection as metaphorical."

    While I would probably lean towards this statement, it is difficult to practically do this and still find a Christian church community. For example, the homeschooling community here is very polarized, and with Crossan's views, I cannot join the Christian homeschooling group and must instead join the secular group. I've learned that irregardless of what you call yourself, what matters most is what other people think you are.

  3. atimetorend,
    I'm with you on the evidence being lacking. What interests me is how this lack of evidence affects people. Some need convincing proof, others don't. Some view the evidence as more convincing than I do, on both sides.

    Like A Child,
    You are having such a struggle to find a group of any type that fits you. I'm sorry about that. Here in memphis I've seen UU homeschool groups. I don't know if there are any where you are, but that would at least give you a group which would have some interest in spiritual matters without being tied to any specific doctrine. If you're not fully satisfied with the secular group, that is.

  4. I don't quite follow the connection Crossan is making with resurrection--I must be missing something. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God was here, but he also (and I think more relevantly to the question) said he was going to rise from the dead. The narrative doesn't read like something the disciples would invent about themselves (they sound quite dense, though that's probably just due to trying to sort out what's a parable and what's literal), and given the chain of witnesses I'm willing to credit it. Something like "The Gospel of Thomas" doesn't read the same--it smells manipulated.

    It isn't quite fair to tar all of Christianity with the failings of modern American evangelical Christianity :-) The Orthodox (for example) have failings of their own, but "saving souls" merely for the purpose of saving more souls doesn't seem to be one of their themes. "Deification" is what they seem to talk about on the sites I frequent. And there's the Catholics, who aren't exactly famous for their evangelism in the US, and don't go a bundle on "seeker sensitive services" either. (You might find internetmonk.com interesting. Spencer died, but his friends keep the site going, and honesty is still the hallmark.)

  5. James , I can only presume that crossan doesn't accept jesus' predictions about his death as fact given that they were writtendown after the events occurred. I don't actually know whether he believes in the possibility of predictive prophesy. You raise a good point.

    I wasn't actually trying to portray all Christianity in a negative light. I agree that not all christendom is exclusively focused on saving souls.

    I've read interneomk before and should get back there. I actually intend to look into the Orthodox faith as I'm not familiar with it.

  6. Thanks for this.
    Having lived through a theological education which was more akin to Crossan, I have long struggled with these issues. In my core I think that there must be something objective to which my subjective faith is correlated. You seem to be alluding to this in your own reflections.It is probably true that many folks are comfortable with the subjective standing alone, for me it seems too flimsy. Maybe I spent too much time counseling people with delusions to accept that "my personal truth" is sufficient.

    I would argue that the crucifixion was very real. There is little doubt about Jesus being dead and how that experience would have been painfully real to those who saw it. I think, therefore, that the event which allowed them to call Jesus alive had to be equally real. My guess is things like an empty tomb and an appearnce would be exactly what it would take to say, "He is alive." I think college professors can forget about life on the ground for first century Jews.
    I think that NT Wright is correct in his argumentation.
    I appreciate your work very much!

  7. Jeff,
    Thanks for stopping by. I am currently in a place where I accept the transcendent, but I'm not sure whether or not Christianity has the definitive word and way to God.

    I'm interested in this concept of personal truth. There's much that's attractive about it, in that it can be available to all. However, you've brought up the problem with it. We have all experienced our personal truth as imperfect. We don't even have to be clinically delusional!