Thanks, Darrel. A lot to think about there. (Hat tip for everything that follows: N. T. Wright.)
It looks like we would agree on the centrality of the resurrection appearances, on the disciples' experience of Jesus in some living and powerful way after the crucifixion, in the genesis of Christian faith. Without such experiences of Jesus, the genesis and shape of Christian faith in the earliest forms known to us would seem inexplicable, even inconceivable.
The resurrection appearances are necessary
to explain the genesis and shape of early Christian faith. But are they sufficient
? There is a certain prima facie
plausibility in the proposal that belief that Jesus was raised might eventually have produced empty tomb stories. But is it also plausible that belief that Jesus had been raised could have been produced without an empty tomb?
Expanding the question somewhat, does the kind of experience you posit of Jesus, however living and powerful, make the disciples' faith and proclamation intelligible? The radical nature of this idea that resurrection had occurred, and of the larger implications for resurrection belief among the early Christians, are perhaps not widely appreciated.
Experiences of encountering deceased loved ones, sometimes in vivid and powerful ways, were by no means unknown among the Jews or their pagan contemporaries. Visions, hallucinations, encounters with spirits, angels and ghosts (Jewish ideas about the afterlife were pretty fuzzy), and other forms of paranormal experiences were all well-accepted phenomena.
The catch is, nothing in Jewish thought, and still less in pagan thought, pointed toward interpreting such experiences with respect the hope of resurrection. It seems very difficult to avoid the conclusion that any experience of Jesus after the crucifixion -- if the experience itself were the only data point -- would be interpreted as a vision / spirit / angel, probably by the disciples themselves and certainly by anyone hearing about it secondhand. Something of this sort is indeed reported in Acts 22-23, where the Pharisees hear Paul's entire Damascus Road story -- and, apparently knowing nothing of the empty tomb, proceed to defend Paul on the grounds that perhaps "an angel or a spirit" has spoken to him. (OTOH, Paul himself, having persecuted the Church, was likely more familiar with the Church's kerygma on this point when he had his Damascus Road experience.)
Resistance to interpreting such an encounter or experience in terms of resurrection, or even thinking to do so, would be formidable. The idea of resurrection occurring for one person while the rest of the world went on was virtually a non sequitur
-- and that's far from the only way that the Christian idea of resurrection parted ways from existing Jewish ideas.
Lazarus' sister Mary's reply to Jesus' assurance that "Your brother will rise again" -- "I know that he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day" -- accurately expresses how Jews thought about resurrection (when they thought about it at all). What Christian theology calls "the general resurrection," in contradistinction to the resurrection of Christ, the Jews called simply "the resurrection," no other sort being looked for. The disciples' reported bewilderment at Jesus' predictions of rising on the third day is also entirely plausible: From a traditional Jewish perspective, it would seem that Jesus must be speaking metaphorically either with respect to "the third day" (in some cryptic reference to the last day) or else "rising from the dead" (thus their actual reported puzzling over what "rising from the dead" might mean).
In a word, resurrection in Jewish belief was not nearly as significant, clear or central a tenet as it became in Christian belief. What was in Jewish belief a rather peripheral, debatable, shadowy doctrine becomes in Christianity central, essential and sharply defined. As Wright puts it, the idea of resurrection underwent a striking mutation (or a number of mutations) in the new Christian faith. One thing that had not shifted, though, is that resurrection still meant not just survival after death, but a reversal of death, a bodily return from death. It was still fundamentally the hope of (some of) the Jews, but seen in a brilliant new light.
This is a historical phenomenon that wants a historical explanation. What caused this mutation? What happened to make the early Christians reevaluate previous perspectives on resurrection so significantly?
The answer closest at hand would seem to be that their experience of Jesus' resurrection somehow caused them to see resurrection in this new light. How, then, did they come to believe that what had happened to Jesus was precisely resurrection, so much so that resurrection itself was now to be understood in this brilliant new light? Post-crucifixion encounters alone wouldn't seem to do it.
In particular, the conviction that Jesus had been raised on the third day
poses an added difficulty. The credal formula of 1 Cor 15 doesn't say "He appeared to Cephas on the third day," but "He was raised on the third day." Whatever extraordinary experience of Jesus might have taken place on any particular day, it's not easy to see how that experience alone would produce the universal affirmation that Jesus' actual status changed somehow on a specific day after his death, especially given, again, the fuzziness of existing Jewish ideas about the afterlife.
As PTC notes, that the 1 Cor 15 credal formula mentions Jesus' burial also seems significant. In a compressed summary like this, such a detail would only be mentioned if it were deemed very significant. Not only does the stated burial contradict Crossan's theory about wild animals eating the body, it probably also militates against the idea PTC mentions of a mass grave. The likely import of the mention of the burial is that the location of Jesus' body for those three days was known
-- and that after those three days the body was no longer there, and known to be no longer there. Surely we aren't to picture the disciples rooting through some mass grave looking for Jesus' body in a heap of corpses! There must have been a tomb, and an empty tomb.
Still another factor is the actual shape of the Easter stories as we have them. To start with, if Mark were going to invent an empty tomb account in order to give narrative flesh to the idea that Jesus had been raised, it's highly unlikely that he would hit on the idea of having the empty tomb discovered by women, who were not considered reliable witnesses (as even the disciples' skepticism accurately attests), without bringing in any male witnesses at all. Rather, like the 1 Corinthians 15 formula which lists only fine, upstanding male witnesses, Mark would likely have had the apostles doing the discovering. Likewise, Matthew and John give apparently independent accounts of Jesus appearing first to women. Other oddities, seemingly independent literarily, crop up, including failure to recognize Jesus. These oddities make the most sense if they preserve the actual character of the original experiences that caused Easter faith, not if we regard them as narrative expressions of Easter faith. I'll explore that argument further in a future post.
Wright argues that while the post-crucifixion appearances are necessary to explain the shape of early Christian faith, by themselves they are utterly insufficient to produce it. The empty tomb, the absent corpse, is also a necessary condition -- and only both conditions in tandem produce a sufficient condition that adequately accounts for the origin and shape of early Christian faith. Neither one by itself does it without the other. It further seems that Easter faith alone is insufficient to explain the narrative accounts we actually have of the discovery of the empty tomb and the encounters with the resurrected Christ. Again, more later.
P.S. Ellen, perhaps Darrel meant "ectoplasm"? Ryan: Borg and Crossan are two of the top guys at the Jesus Seminar.
Edited by SDG, 21 March 2010 - 11:37 AM.