"Harmonizing" Stories Of The Resurrection (On the Bishop of Durham’s Attempts To Do So, i.e., N.T. Wright’s Attempts)

Since Matthew brought up the question of "harmonizations" of the resurrection stories in the New Testament in his two recent (excellent) posts In Defense of Visions and Defending Visions I thought I'd add to what he wrote by assembling statements made by conservative, moderate, and liberal theologians admitting the difficulties, and unconvincing nature of such “harmonizations.”

The move to read the Bible historically took root in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries primarily among devout Christian thinkers. Rather than attempting to harmonize the differences between conflicting biblical accounts, these interpreters tried to let each voice speak reverently on its own. <...> In Wright's view the only path forward is the establishment of a sequence of events in the life of Jesus that stand up to the scrutiny of historians. This historically reconstructed sequence of events will not conform fully to the telling of the story that the Gospel writers themselves have offered the Church. The Gospel writers wrote in the context of the evolving Church and sometimes skewed their portraits to match ecclesial interest rather than historical reality. In this particular volume these worries are not so weighty, since all Wright sets out to determine is whether the resurrection as an event is true or not.

But when the same set of methods is turned on the full Gospel narrative, the reader has to accept a whole set of historical judgments that Wright makes in order to proceed to the plane of theological reflection and affirmation. Having read a good deal of Wright, I, for one, am not prepared to follow all of his historical reconstructions. No doubt they are learned; but as examples of historical imagination they remain speculative and somewhat idiosyncratic.

Chaps. 13-17 of Wright's book on the Resurrection are a detailed analysis of the canonical Gospels' accounts of Jesus' resurrection... One question that readers may judge less than adequately handled is whether the variations among the Gospel narratives relfect 'only minor development' (p. 611) in traditions about Jesus' resurrection in the first century.

"One of the most conclusive results of contemporary redactional studies of the New Testament traditions of the appearances, no less than of the empty tomb, is that an original nucleus of tradition has been developed during the course of its transmissions and that the resulting diversity can be explained by reference to apologetic motives and concerns along the way; the modification of the tradition is an inevitable by-product of the attempt to communicate and defend resurrection belief in different contexts to different people with different preconceptions and concerns. All this conditions what is said. The diversity of the resulting traditions cannot just be added together to form one synthetic account of what is supposed to have happened at the first Easter" <...> [Modern theology today] "offers a spectrum of views... ranging from belief in the resurrection of Christ as a historical event of the past, to talk of it as little more than a religiously useful story or myth... not to mention a very significant number of theologians who are content to treat the resurrection with a degree of ambivalence or lack of candour."

"What Happened That First Easter? Can There Be A Literal Truth to Resurrection?" by A. E. Harvey (former canon and subdeacon of Westminster, who has authored several books on Jesus and the New Testament) <...> A number of significant and early New Testament texts summarize the story of Jesus without any reference to the resurrection: he was "exalted to the right hand of God" -- this statement about one who had been condemned as a dangerous sectarian by his compatriots and executed as a criminal by the Romans was evidently felt by some to be a sufficient expression of a momentous claim: again all apearances, Jesus had been vindicated and glorified by God. Wright would reply that it was nevertheless the resurrection that was the primary article of faith and proclamation: if it is not explicitly stated, it is simply taken for granted, and explanations (ingenious if not always entirely persuasive) can be proposed for its omission. BUT THIS HARDLY SETTLES THE QUESTION. [emphasis added by E.T.B.] If some early credal formulations (as many believe these passages to be) fail to mention it at all, can we say that the resurrection -- in the sense of the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Jesus on earth -- was always and from the very beginning the essential focus of Christian belief to quite the extent that is claimed throughout this study?

But if not, what are the consequences? Might not the ascension and exaltation of Jesus be an alternative way of describing the mysterious truth of Jesus' continuing existence? Here, once again, we are up against the constraints of logical analysis. In logic, the statement that one thing is the case excludes the opposite. But is this true of the language of the afterlife? Wright begins with a clean logical distinction. The pagans, he says, denied resurrection; the Jews believed in it [though that was not true of all Jews--E.T.B.] It follows that those who proclaimed Jesus' resurrection were speaking within a Jewish context of belief. But here logic is surely misapplied. The Greeks had a word for a person coming back to life: anastasis, resurrection. Of course they "denied" it--in principle. Everyone agreed that the dead are dead and do not come back to life. Yet strange things seemed to happen. In a culture where burial or cremation were carried out within a day or two after death, there were instances of wrong diagnosis--people thought to be dead revived just in time to escape their own funerals. Stories circulated of revival after a longer period, and some people evidently believed them. Similarly among the Jews: it was not thought possible that Lazarus could be brought back to life when his body had been in the tomb long enough to be noisomely decomposing. Yet stories of such "resurrection" could still be told with some possibility (however small) of being believed. [Actually lots of stories of various miracles, even Matthew's "raising of the many" from "many opened tombs" passed muster as believable back then.--E.T.B.] THE STUDY OF VOCABULARY IN DIFFERENT ANCIENT CULTURES IS NOT ENOUGH TO DEFINE THE BOUNDARIES OF CREDIBILITY. [Emphasis added.--E.T.B.] And it was not long before people of Greek and Roman background found themselves prepared to believe in Jesus' resurrection [another miracle in a world of them--E.T.B.] without a preliminary course in Jewish beliefs about resurrection and the "afterlife."

But logic also stumbles in the face of "resurrection" itself. The word, as Wright readily admits, was capable of metaphorical use. In Jewish literature it was a metaphor for national revival, the return from exile and the renewal of a covenant relationship with God. In Christianity it became a metaphor for a "radical change of behavior." But to speak in this way is to assume that there was a determinate meaning of the word that was not metaphorical. This "literal use and concrete referent" Wright finds, not in the rare and barely credible cases of people apparently coming back to life, but in the resurrection of Jesus. It was this factual event which allowed the word to have a metaphorical career in Christianity comparable with, but different from, that which it had in Judaism. What can be said about this factual reality? Wright extrapolates from the resurrection stories in the gospels. These are full of details, he suggests, that are both surprising and unlikely to have been invented for dogmatic or apologetic purposes.

[Details of dreams, and hearsay, also feature "surprising" and "unlikely" details. Certainly early Christians, eager for more information than the limited number of sayings and doings preserved in the earliest Gospel and Q, went on to create not only the infancy narratives, but the resurrection narratives as well (neither of which are found in Mark, the earliest Gospel). People were dying to know more, and every little tale or idle experience that someone related to someone would be magnified by that desire. Take the example of the three added endings to Mark, or the many Gospels and Acts that followed.--E.T.B.]

In brief: Jesus was both like and unlike his former self; he was recognizable but not recognized; he was physical enough to cook food and eat it, but had no difficulty passing through locked doors; he spoke with magisterial authority and yet "some doubted." [The mention of "doubt" normally accompanied stories of miracles. It was part and parcel of telling a miracle story.--E.T.B.] What sort of existence is this? Wright struggles to find appropriate words and suggests "metaphysical," "transphysicality," then, was the "literal use and concrete referent" of the word "resurrection." This is what happened to Jesus, and this is what will happen to us. But can he really mean this? IS IT THE CHRISTIAN HOPE THAT WE SHALL OURSELVES COOK AND EAT AND PASS THROUGH DOORS AND BE SOMETIMES RECOGNIZED, SOMETIMES NOT, BY OUR FRIENDS? [Emphasis added.--E.T.B.]

Is this a "literal" description of the resurrection that is promised to all? Surely we must allow here for some epistemic distance between an utterly mysterious happening and the ability of human being to put it into words? [And surely those who are not Christians must be allowed doubts concerning such tales and their "details," especially in lieu of the fact that the later the Gospel the greater number of post-resurrection tales it contained, the greater number of post-resurrection words spoken by Jesus, and the more numerous the "details."--E.T.B.]

Surely we must be ready to admit an element of "as if" [an element not of reality but of metaphor--E.T.B.] in the accounts of the empty tomb and of supernatural appearances? The suggestion that the gospel stories of the resurrection of Christ provide a kind of template for imagining the resurrection of each one of ourselves surely crosses the bounds of credibility. Are we not mistaking imaginative narrative and metaphorical language for literal description? Similarly, when Wright castigates those Christians (the majority!) who confuse resurrection with going to heaven, may this not be a matter of preferring one metaphor to another when describing the same mysterious reality?

But it may be that the issue is a more fundamental one. This book is the third (and is promised not to be the last) in the impressive series of his scholarly studies to which Wright has given the title, "Christian Origins and the Question of God." If the real question is indeed "the question of God," then the kind of language one believes it is appropriate to use about the mysteries of life beyond the grave may also be the kind of language one will use about God himself. Here Wright appears to endorse a certain EVANGELICAL LITERALNESS. [Emphasis Added.--E.T.B.]

Wright's God is intensely personal, imagined as adopting the strategies of a human being. He is a God who can be described as having "dealt with the problem" of evil, or of sin, or as one whose promise has "got stuck at the point of Israel's rebellion." Accordingly (in relation to the present subject) we read that God "accomplished" the resurrection. ACCORDING TO WRIGHT WE ARE TO BELIEVE, THAT IS TO SAY, NOT JUST THAT SOMETHING WAS EXPERIENCED ON THE FIRST EASTER DAY, WHICH ENABLED THE DISCIPLES TO BELIEVE THAT JESUS WAS IN SOME SENSE ALIVE--SOMETHING THAT BY ITS VERY NATURE MUST ELUDE DEFINITION OR PRECISE DESCRIPTION--BUT THAT GOD LITERALLY "ACCOMPLISHED" A UNIQUE AND DECISIVE INTERVENTION IN HUMAN HISTORY, INVOLVING THE REMOVAL AND SUBSEQUENT TRANSFORMATION OF A HUMAN BODY. [Emphasis added. That statement neatly defines a division between Christian theologians.--E.T.B.]
Dr. James D. G. Dunn, a moderate Evangelical scholar from Britain with credentials and publications at least as long if not longer than N. T. Wright, and who undoubtedly knows N.T. Wright personaly, seems almost as pessimistic as the famous Dr. Albert Schweitzer concering how poorly the "historical Jesus" matches up with "orthodox Christian dogmas about Jesus."

James D.G. Dunn in his latest monumental work (both he and Wright like writing thick books), Jesus Remembered, argues that The Gospel of John's narrative is not reliable, nor the claims it makes for Jesus' quasi-divine status. (In his earlier work, Evidence for Jesus, Dunn didn't imagine that Jesus spoke even one word reported in John.) Dunn admits there is little to support the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, and little evidence that Jesus supported a mission to the gentiles, and no evidence that Jesus saw himself as any kind of messiah. (The term does not even appear in Q.) Nor is there much left of the "Son of Man," except for a few uncertain eschatological allusions. Dunn argues that Jesus did not claim any title for himself. Jesus may have believed that he was going to die, but he did not believe he was dying to redeem the sins of the world. "If Jesus hoped for resurrection it was presumably to share in the general and final resurrection of the dead." There is astonishingly little support for what Jesus' last words were. Dunn admits that Jesus believed in an imminent eschatological climax that, of course, did not happen. "Putting it bluntly, Jesus was proved wrong by the course of events." Dunn's account of the resurrection notes all of the weaknesses of the tradition: The link of Jesus' resurrection to a falsely imminent general resurrection, confusion as to what sort of Jesus the witnesses were seeing, a persistent theme of failure of the witnesses to recognize Jesus (in Matthew 28:17 the disciples are seeing him in Galilee yet "some doubted," not just Thomas), confusion as to where they were seeing Jesus (in Jerusalem and Galilee? On earth or in heaven?).
ONE THIRD OF ANGLICAN CLERGY (Wright is an Anglican bishop) DO NOT BELIEVE IN THE RESURRECTION Daily Telegraph (England), July 31, 2002 By Jonathan Petre, A third of Church of England clergy doubt or disbelieve in the physical Resurrection and only half are convinced of the truth of the Virgin birth, according to a new survey. The poll of nearly 2,000 of the Church's 10,000 clergy also found that only half believe that faith in Christ is the only route to salvation. While it has long been known that numerous clerics are dubious about the historic creeds of the Church, the survey is the first to disclose how widespread is the scepticism.

...Outrageous is Wright's contrived and harmonistic treatment of the statements about a spiritual resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, where we read that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (v. 50) and that the resurrected Jesus, the precedent for believers, accordingly possessed a "spiritual body" (v. 44). Wright labors mightily and futilely to persuade us that all Paul meant by "flesh and blood" was "mortal and corruptible," not "made of flesh and blood." Who but a fellow apologist (like William Lane Craig who sells the same merchandise) will agree to this? What does Wright suppose led the writer to use a phrase like "flesh and blood" for mortal corruptibility in the first place if it is not physical fleshiness that issues inevitably in mortal corruption? How can the Corinthians writer have used such a phrase if he meanwhile believed the risen Jesus still had flesh and blood? It is no use to protest that none of the "second temple Jewish" writers we know of had such a notion of resurrection. This supposed fact (and Ladd knew better: he cited apocalypses that have the dead rise in angelic form, or in the flesh which is then transformed into angelic stuff) cannot prevent us from noticing that 1 Corinthians 15:45 has the risen Christ "become a life-giving spirit."

Likewise, when he gets to Luke, Wright laughs off the screaming contradiction between Luke 24:40 ("Touch me and see: no spirit has flesh as you can see I have.") and 1 Corinthians 15:50 and 45 ("Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God." "The last Adam became a life-giving spirit."). The contexts of both passages make it quite clear that the terms are being used in the same senses, only that one makes the risen Jesus fleshly, while the other says the opposite. Wright's laughable hair-splitting is a prime example of the lengths he will go to get out of a tight spot. Similarly, when he gets to 1 Peter 3:18 (Jesus was "put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison, etc."), Wright rewrites the text to make it say what he wants: "he was put to death by the flesh, and brought to life by the Spirit." This is just ridiculous. It is the exegesis of that faith that calls things that are not as though they were. Wright's second mortal sin is his desire to have his Eucharistic wafer and eat it too. He takes refuge in either side of an ambiguity when it suits him, hopping back and forth from one foot to the other, and hoping the reader will not notice. For instance, Wright is desperate to break down the "flesh/spirit" dichotomy in Paul and Luke (not to mention that between Paul and Luke!), but he builds the same wall higher outside the texts. <...> Part of Wright's agenda of harmonizing and de-fusing the evidence is to smother individual New Testament texts beneath a mass of theological synthesis derived from the Old Testament and from the outlines of Pauline theology in general. He is a victim of what James Barr long ago called the "Kittel mentality," referring to the approach of Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, in which articles on individual New Testament terms and words synthesized from all uses of the term an artificial and systematic semantic structure, leading the reader to suppose that every individual usage of the word was an iceberg tip carrying with it implied reference to all other references. In other words, each article in the TDNT composed a "New Testament theology," topic by topic. In just this manner, Wright first composes a streamlined Old Testament theology of historical and eschatological redemption (akin to that of Von Rad, without the latter's understanding that much of it was based on fictive saga rather than history); then Wright synthesizes a Pauline Theology, then a New Testament theology, then an early Christian theology; and finally he insists that the synthetic resurrection concept he has distilled must control our reading of all individual gospel and Pauline texts dealing with the resurrection. In short, it is an elaborate exercise in harmonizing disparate data. The implications of 1 Corinthians 15, for example, with its talk of spiritual resurrection, are silenced as the text is muzzled, forbidden to say anything outside the party line Wright has constructed as "the biblical" teaching on the subject.

Many professional scholars whose entire scholarly careers have consisted of studying and researching the Bible and whose careers began with a devout love of Scripture in a conservative Christian sense (including Dr. Price above) later abandoned their formerly conservative views after gaining knowledge of the full range of questions involved, and hence they changed from being religious conservatives to either more moderate or liberal or even agnostic standpoints. In fact entire seminaries founded originally as seminaries for conservative Christian denominations have changed over time into liberal arts colleges, and now entertain moderate to liberal to agnostic professors and views. (For instance the seminary founded by John Calvin later became filled with Deists. While in America, Yale was founded due to the "liberal theological excesses" of Harvard.) Even in our day look what happened to Fuller Seminary, or look at some of the professors and graduates of Wheaton College, Billy Graham's young-earth creationist and inerrantist alma mater. They seem to be stretching all sorts of boundaries these days, headed away from such conservatism and toward moderation, but not taking radical or huge steps all at once which would lose too many conservative donors. (Dr. Bart Ehrman, the agnostic Biblical scholar and bestselling theological author, graduated from Wheaton with extremely high honors.) Others who left the conservative fold of their youth after majoring in Biblical studies include well known and prolific biblical writers: Crossan, Goulder, Lüdemann, Borg, Cupitt, Bullock, Larson, Cunningham, Salisbury, Dever, Armstrong, and others listed at Steve Locks's "Leaving Christianity" website. Neither their stories, nor the stories of the host of seminaries founded as bastions of conservatism that grew more moderate and liberal, will be found in books sold at Evangelical Protestant or Catholic bookstores, nor highlighted on TV networks owned by those churches. *smile*