The Resurrection of the Messiah

Christopher Bryan is a biblical scholar noted for his work on the genre of Mark (as Chris Price has blogged about previously). In this volume, the culmination of decades of research, he presents his discussion of the resurrection of Jesus. Coming on the heels of Michael Licona's monumental tome on the resurrection, which itself was preceded by N.T. Wright's magnum opus, what sets this volume apart?

One distinction is that, while it covers much of the same ground as Wright's book, it is much shorter and easier to digest. Much of the technical discussion is found in the endnotes, which take up nearly half the book (reminiscent of Craig Keener's book on the historical Jesus). The main text itself is concise and elegant, and it is obviously the mature distillation of a lifetime of research and thinking about related topics (indeed, one reason why the endnotes are so voluminous is that Bryan often digresses into discussions of literature, art and ethics, which all however tie in somehow to the main subject).

Another distinction is the author's theological stance, which could best be summed up as 'too conservative for most liberals and too liberal for most conservatives'. On the one hand, he clearly believes in a personal God, the Triune God of Christian tradition, and maintains that Jesus really did rise from the dead. He also adheres to a robust Christian ethic and holds Scripture to be supremely authoritative for Christian faith and practice. On the other hand, his views on the composition of and diversity within Scripture lean in a more liberal direction than most evangelicals would be comfortable with. He sees points of intractable conflict between the various accounts of Jesus' resurrection and envisions considerable ideological shaping of the various traditions (he expounds on his views on the authority of the Bible in another book, And God Spoke, which I have not read yet).

Even for inerrantist evangelicals, however, Bryan's work can be valuable, because he carefully argues that despite the diversity and theological shaping of the resurrection accounts, they nevertheless present a generally consistent portrait of the postmortem fate of Jesus, a portrait which diverges quite sharply from the afterlife expectations of both Jews and pagans alike. When scholars who are more open to contradiction and even error in Scripture nevertheless discern a strong common core of historically plausible claims, those claims gain additional credence.

The book's format is broadly similar to that of Wright's book. The first part consists of three chapters. The first two give a sketch of Jewish and pagan afterlife expectations from before and around the time of Jesus. Despite their brevity the discussion is actually fairly detailed (together with the endnotes) and the reader gets a solid grasp of the spectrum of afterlife views to be found among various cultures in late antiquity. Having established this background information, the third chapter then outlines the early Christian resurrection message as developed by Paul and the evangelists. The upshot of this first part is that, despite the bewildering variety of cultural options for depicting the postmortem fate of heroes, emperors, martyrs and sages, none of those options quite cover the early Christian claims about Jesus. In fact, those claims diverge sharply from the general expectations of both Jews and pagans, and in ways that are hard to account for if the disciples had not been driven to them by novel experiences imposed on them externally (I posted an excerpt from this section recently). Their claims about Jesus created embarrassing cultural and religious obstacles to acceptance in the broader Roman world (as evidenced by Paul's own admission that the gospel was "a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" 1 Cor 1:23). Why would the early Christians nevertheless insist so emphatically on these novel claims? Most likely because they were convinced that such novel things had actually happened.

The second part consists of detailed exegesis of the resurrection accounts that we find in Paul and the four Gospels. Although some of Bryan's exegesis will be hard for evangelicals to swallow (mainly because of the degree of creative shaping and discrepancies that he allows for between the Gospel accounts), it does nonetheless establish quite convincingly the following points:

1) implicit in Paul's letters is a narrative outline of the fate of Jesus which very probably derives from the earliest Christian claims about Jesus: that he died, was buried, was raised from the dead, and appeared to his followers; this outline is consistently followed by all four evangelists

2) also implicit in Paul's letters and especially 1 Cor 15 is an acknowledgment of the empty tomb (Bryan was originally skeptical of this, but in recent years changed his mind)

3) the evangelists' insistence on naming women who were present at Jesus' crucifixion and who went to the tomb, even when their inclusion seems literarily and culturally awkward, is good evidence that their accounts derive from the women's eyewitness testimony (that the witness of women to the empty tomb and first resurrection appearances was very counter-productive for the Christian message is evident from Paul's silence about their testimony, Luke's admission that at first the disciples thought it was an "idle tale", and Celsus' derogatory comments, among other facts)

4) Despite the evangelists' divergence over who saw Jesus first and the details of the encounters, they all agree together with Paul that the risen Jesus partook of a 'transformed physicality': he was present in the flesh, but in flesh no longer constrained by mortality and frailty; the evangelists also agree for the most part that Jesus was hard to recognize, but that there was still clear continuity between the earthly Jesus and the risen Lord

In the third part, consisting of two chapters, Bryan discusses and critiques various alternative explanations for early Christian claims about Jesus, and then discusses the religious implications of Jesus' resurrection. In critiquing the alternative explanations he is not as detailed as Licona, but still makes good points that are seldom heard or that, even if made before, need to be repeated. To the suggestion that Jesus merely survived the crucifixion, Bryan counters that "Anyone who imagines that the survivor of a crucifixion would be in a state to convince anyone that he was the victorious conqueror of death clearly has very little idea what a crucifixion was like." (p. 163) With regard to the theory that the appearance traditions stem from cross-culturally attested visions of the departed, Bryan remarks:

Ludemann's view of the disciples having visions for which their experience had in some sense prepared them has a little more mileage in it [than the suggestion that Jesus survived the crucifixion]. It seems to me that his conjectures (they are, of course, no more than that) about Peter and Paul would be plausible, if there were no data that a historian had to explain other than a tradition of appearances. But that is not the case...[the conjectures] do not explain the texts, which stubbornly, persistently, and without exception witness to the Easter faith [involving the claim of Jesus' transformed physicality, as we saw above]. One may grant that such visions as Ludemann describes were common in antiquity and are so still-I will even confess to having had two such experiences myself. Yet however common such visions may have been or are...neither in antiquity nor in the present are they normally regarded as evidence of resurrection. On the contrary they are taken to be at worst (I suppose) hallucinations, and at best (as I have taken them to be) genuine communications of comfort about the departed from beyond the grave. But in neither case are they considered to be declarations that the departed one has risen from the dead. That, however, is what the texts claim about Jesus. That is what Peter and Paul actually say. Why did they do that? Ludemann's hypothesis leaves that question unanswered. (pp.163-164)

It is also fashionable in some theological circles to claim that the resurrection traditions were not meant to be taken literally, but were rather parables or myths packaging some innocuous claim such as 'His teaching will continue' or 'He will continue to inspire us in our hearts'. To this Bryan counters that it is usually clear in the Bible when certain accounts are meant to be taken metaphorically or parabolically, and there is absolute no indication that the evangelists meant their accounts to be taken as such. On the contrary, "that [Mark the evangelist] intended us to understand his story of the tomb as more or less a description of something that happened-at a particular time, in a particular place, that some identifiable people saw-appears to me to be evident." (p.166)

Having given such a strong critique of the various skeptical explanations of the early Christian claims, Bryan then somewhat surprisingly only makes a modest claim for the explanatory power of the 'resurrection hypothesis': " believes in a God who might act in and through the universe of causality and physicality in ways that utterly transcend our present understanding and experience of that universe...then the early Christians' claim, which they did indeed frame with remarkable persistence and consistency, is possible. Not thereby proven, of course, in any kind of scientific or legal sense; historical questions are in any case not susceptible to that kind of proof. But the Christian claim is possible." (p.172) Like Dale Allison, Bryan seems to make the plausibility of the resurrection claim rest entirely upon one's worldview presuppositions, and makes a sharp dichotomy between the level of conviction that can be claimed in scientific or legal contexts vs. historical or theological contexts. But it seems to me that the thrust of the discussion up to that point had strongly indicated the veracity of the early Christian reports about what had happened to Jesus, given the weakness of the alternatives and the novel, culturally awkward nature of the Christian resurrection claims. Here I think he could have profited from reading Licona's book, which provides clear guidelines for the extent to which we can judge religious claims analogously to other kinds of claims, including scientific and legal ones.

The book ends with a discussion of the theological implications of the resurrection, assuming that it took place. Then there is a series of appendices which deal with ancillary questions of considerable interest in their own right, such as whether the passion narratives in the Gospels represent 'prophecy historicized', as Crossan claims (Bryan argues against this proposal), and what the New Testament has to say about the possibility of final damnation (here both evangelicals committed to the reality of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment and annihilationists will find something to disagree with). Another nice feature of this book is a section containing reproductions of famous paintings depicting various biblical scenes.

Overall I found this to be a highly stimulating and encouraging read on the resurrection. I gained more in-depth knowledge of the details of the Gospels' passion and resurrection accounts and had my faith renewed, anticipating the eventual completion of God's Great Divine Clean-Up (see p. 39), which started with the raising of the Messiah from the dead.


Jason Pratt said…
Fine review, JD! Kindled my copy afterward. {g}

Joel said…
What is his view on eternal punishment? Is it something similar to NT Wright?
Jason Pratt said…
Based on what I read in the relevant appendix (keeping in mind I haven't read the rest of the book yet), his position is rather similar to that of Richard Baukham: a quarter-step further toward universalism than C. S. Lewis, but a quarter-step behind Balthasar, Bulgakov and Barth (and Bell for that matter.)

1.) He affirms the persistence of God to save sinners from sin;

2.) He affirms the scope of God to save all sinners from sin;

(which technically would make him some kind of minimal universalist by itself)

3.) He tends to affirm God will be victorious in salvation from sin;

(which normally would bring him up to full universalism status)


4.) He also claims, without going into details as to how this could happen, that irrevocable damnation is still possible--and not in the sense of an ongoing stalemate but in the sense that the sinner somehow makes it permanently impossible for God to save the sinner from sin.

Which sort of conflicts with the persistence--which of course is why Lewis, who held a very similar position, claimed God would give up trying once the sinner had made it permanently impossible for God to save that soul from sin. (At which point Lewis expected God to annihilate the soul, or more like allow the soul to inadvertently annihilate itself. But not until then.)

So unlike Lewis, Bryan doesn't (in that small appendix anyway) turn around and deny the original persistence of God to save sinners from sin (which Lewis also strongly affirmed elsewhere--including in The Problem of Pain, the same book where he claimed God would know when to eventually stop persisting); but unlike the Three Big Bs (plus Bell) Bryan does think the sinner can irrevocably damn himself beyond God's ability to save.

Bryan doesn't claim that this will certainly happen for any soul, though.

I don't recall from that chapter whether Bryan expects annihilation to be the result of any final damnation (as Lewis sometimes did), or whether (as Lewis sometimes did) he thinks God will keep those sinner in hopeless existence with as much good as they'll allow God to give them, planting the flag of pain as the final marker reminding them that something is wrong in their lives even though God Himself is impotent to do anything else anymore.

NT Wright (and Lewis later in life) seems more of an assured annihilationist than that. But Bryan and NTW do both seem to think the sinners punish themselves rather than God actually doing any of the punishing (God's contribution being the hopeless annihilation or the continuing hopeless existence.)

On the other hand, I get the impression NTW more strongly expects (as Lewis did) that there will definitely be souls reaching that final condition; while Bryan, from that short appendix, considers it only a real possibility not a revealed certainty.

(Relatedly, back when I first became a univeralist I was entirely okay with the notion that God had revealed an ongoing stalemate for at least some sinners, which wouldn't obviate God's continuing action toward saving them from sin--the sinners never succeed in making it impossible for themselves to repent, they just happen never to do so. Later after several more years of scriptural study I came to believe God has revealed He will be totally victorious in saving every sinner from sin sooner or later, although for some sinners it will be much later due to their continuing intransigence. Meanwhile they're punished by God in Gehenna, first in hades and then after the resurrection of the good and the evil. I mention this not to argue for the point, but to provide a contrast to the other examples I mentioned including Bryan.)

I will reiterate this is based on my reading one small appendix a few days ago. {wry g} JD, who has read the whole book, may have accurate corrections. {s!}

J.D. said…
Jason your comments are spot-on, very good summary. Bryan doesn't comment any further in the main text on final damnation, but in his exegesis of Paul he does find a strong universalist strain in Paul's thought (he argues for example that the "in Christ" in 1 Cor 15 is not limited just to believers, but has the same scope as the preceding "in Adam"). I'd actually classify him as a hopeful universalist. But to the extent that he allows for final damnation, I don't think he's an annihilationist. He probably envisions a never-ending wallowing in self-absorbed delusion, a la the Great Divorce.

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