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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Two Reviews of Leading Scholarly Treatments of the Resurrection Narratives

I have been slaving away at work and spending most of my off time working on my article on the Acts of the Apostles. Needed to come up for air and had recently completed a book on the resurrection by Norman Perrin. So I'm going to post two book reviews I wrote and added to Amazon: one by Reginald H. Fuller and the other by Norman Perrin. Both are seminal works, cited by all sides to the debate--from liberal scholars such as Marcos Borg and Burton Mack to conservative defenders of the historicity of the resurrection, William L. Craig (The Son Rises), Stephen T. Davis (Risen Indeed), and Gary Habermas (In Defense of Miracles).

Neither Fuller or Perrin are conservative. They are probably best described as moderately liberal scholars. Perrin perhaps more liberal than Fuller (at least in their treatment of the resurrection narratives). They are by no means, however, out of the mainstream of their fields.

As you will see, I am critical of both books. Because these scholars are widely respected, I can only hope I have explained adequately my reasons. One by product of my reviewing these books has been to look more closely into the use of redaction criticism in New Testament studies. Both authors make substantial use of this tool. Perrin has even written a book about redaction criticism.

The formation of the Resurrection narratives
by Reginald Horace Fuller

The strength of this work is that it covers all of the New Testament sources of the resurrection narratives, meaning Paul's letters as well as the canonical Gospels. There is also an appendix that discusses the resurrection appearances in some of the apocryphal gospels. Fuller is obviously competent and familiar with the material. He finds redactions, exaggerations, conflations, and invention at every turn. In fairness, though, he also reaches conclusions more traditional, such that Luke had an independent source beyond Mark, that the Emmaus Road Story is based on earlier tradition, and that at least the report of the empty tomb by a women or women is historical.

The greatest weakness of this book is the leaps that Fuller takes to reach conclusions that will appear to the reader as speculative, at best. The book has less than 200 pages of text. There are sentences that should be paragraphs and paragraphs that should be chapters and chapters that could easily be books. As a point of comparison, Raymond Brown takes 1500 pages and two volumes to cover the death and burial of Jesus. This does not mean that Fuller is always wrong, just that he often provides insufficient information and discussion for us to form an opinion one way or the other.

One example is Fuller's conclusion that the "third day" reference in 1 Corinthians 15 "is not a chronological datam, but a dogmatic assertion." Why the disciples would have found "on the third day" to be dogmatically necessary is gleaned from much later apocalyptic writings in the Talmud. But not only are these sources much later than the resurrection narratives, they are not discussed or even cited (Fuller provides a secondary reference). Nevertheless, Fuller assumes that these apocalyptic beliefs about the significance of the "third day" must have been powerfully active during the time of Jesus. So powerful that the early Christians had to invent a reference to "on the third day" to meet that expectation. But apparently not powerful enough to have left any contemporary evidence of its existence. This seems unlikely and needs much more evidence than is cited.

I do not mean to impugn Fuller. After sweeping away the possibility that there was a historical event that prompted the tradition, he had little choice but to come up with an alternative--no matter how unsupported. Of course, his discussion of why there could not have been a historical prompting for the tradition rests on his assumption that early Christians would not have seen the discovery of the empty tomb and the beginning of the resurrection appearances as indicating the day Jesus was resurrected. I disagree and think at the very least the point merits much further attention. Certainly it would be reasonable for the apostles to conclude that Jesus' resurrection occurred within the same time frame as the empty tomb being discovered AND the beginning of the resurrection appearances. Fuller also ignores the reports that Jesus referred to the destruction of the temple and its being rebuilt in three days. This tradition is attested by two traditions (Jn. 2:19 and Mark 14:58; 15:29) so it is not so easily dismissed.

In addition to a simple lack of sufficient discussion, part of the problem seems to be Fuller's apparent assumption that any tension between the accounts can only be explained by authorial redaction. He also sometimes views the literary evidence as a closed universe. For example, because Paul only lists resurrection appearances without supplying narratives, Fuller appears to conclude that the narratives later grew out of the lists. I find this rather unlikely. Some of the appearances in Paul never found there way into a narrative and other narratives, though preexisting the gospels, have no detectable source in the list. Additionally, Paul is expressing a creedal statement, useful in preaching and in letter writing. But it seems more likely that the list was distilled from known stories about the resurrection appearances. After all, the leaders of the church had actually experienced these appearances themselves (Peter, James, Paul, the Twelve, and the Apostles). Not nearly enough attention is given to the dynamic of how these witnesses would have shaped the development of the narrative traditions. Paul lived at least as late as 62 CE. James too lived into the 60s. Though we have less information about Peter, he too seems to have lived into the 60s. (Not to mention the Twelve and the other apostles). All of them were continuously active in the church as leaders of the young movement. Would they have really left such little imprint on gospels written only 5-15 years later? I am skeptical. But again, the issue deserves much more attention than it gets.

Overall, an informative read with some insights and good discussion. But ultimately more useful for pointing out the issues than resolving them.

The Resurrection According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke by Norman Perrin

After reading The Resurrection by Norman Perrin, I can definitely say that he knows a lot. A lot about Greek literature and a lot about these gospels. He especially knows a lot about how the synoptic gospels differ from each other. And that is the focus of his book. Perrin attempts to understand how each views the resurrection of Jesus by focusing on how they differ from each other. Unfortunately, due to the substantive and methodological problems in his analysis, Perrin usually ends up engaging in undue speculation (however well informed) or stating the obvious.

First, by building his case on how much the synoptic gospels differ instead of how each presents the resurrection as a whole, Perrin skews his analysis to highlight the different emphasis. This problem is highlighted by the length of the book--which weighs in at 84 pages of text and only refers to six sources (2 of which are other works by Perrin).

Second, Perrin does not include any discussion of the Gospel of John. To his credit, Perrin is frank about this and explains that it is because he lacks the requisite expertise. Even so, if the focus is on how different Christian authors, and presumably communities, viewed and retold the story of the resurrection, any analysis that simply ignores the Gospel of John is denying itself an important part of the picture.

Third, Perrin does not give much time to discussing the earliest presentation of the resurrection in the letters of Paul, except for a few pages in his conclusion. Even then he does not really work them into the picture of understanding the gospels in light of how the earliest Christian writings and formula understood the resurrection. Again, this seems to be denying the analysis much needed data.

Fourth, because Perrin starts with the Gospel of Mark and focuses on how Matthew and Luke differ from Mark, his analysis can only be as good as his conclusions regarding Mark. And here it appears there are significant flaws. Though Perrin concedes much of the argument that the original version of Mark did not end at 16:8 is strong, he nevertheless concludes that it did indeed end there. Additionally, Perrin argues that Mark envisions no resurrection appearances at all! Even though Perrin concedes that Mark's readers were aware of stories of such appearances. What about Mark's statement that Jesus will meet his followers in Galilee? Perrin does not think this refers to Jesus appearing to the disciples there (as Matthew reports). Rather, to Perrin "Galilee" is code word for the mission to the gentile nations. This all seems rather unlikely, especially if we give any place to Paul's letters in the analysis. These, in my opinion, foundational errors set the entire program off on the wrong foot--no matter how intelligent or informed the rest of Perrin's discussion.

All in all, Perrin's book does a good job of pointing out differences between the synoptic gospels and their treatment of the resurrection. The analysis of the significance of those differences rests on some assumptions/conclusions that prove to be unpersuasive. And much data -- such as Paul's letters and the Gospel of John -- are sacrificed to the further detriment of the enterprise. Still, the price is right and informed speculation can be helpful in trying to sort out the gospels and the resurrection. Just recognize the limitations of this particular analysis.

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