Redefining Resurrection, Part 1


I’ve made the argument before, many times, that Christianity was a highly offensive faith in the context of first century society, one that required an event like the Resurrection in order to be believed. Recently I was informed (and confirmed) that the lunatic anti-scholar Robert Price misrepresented my view in his interview with Bart Ehrman, describing my views as being that Christianity could only have succeeded if the “Holy Spirit” had been convincing people of its truth back then. I have never made any such argument anywhere, and in fact wholly disagree with any view that turns the Holy Spirit into a wholesale persuasion-dispensing gumball machine. What this demonstrates well is that critics like Price can only achieve victory in debates with Christians by ascribing to them views they do not hold. (Next up Price will say that I thought Christianity was spread by way of the apostles wearing “Make Israel Great Again” t-shirts and ballcaps.)

By way of further example, one such point of offense was Christianity’s claim that the process of resurrection was one reserved for the end of time, and for all men, all at once. The resurrection of Jesus would have been a non-starter in Jewish contexts based on this alone. (Gentile contexts are a different matter.) If  the disciples were mere inventors, and if they followed the lead of their social world, it would have been enough to say that Jesus' body had been taken up to heaven. This would have made Christianity a much easier "sell" to the Jews (and the pagans). The Jews had within their traditions stories of righteous men whose bodies had been taken up to heaven: Elijah in the Old Testament, and the body of Moses in the apocryphal literature. 

Though less educated minds may cite more recent sources as though this were a recent innovation by apologists, it is far from that. In 1973, Gerald O’Collins, (The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, 31) was already saying this:

Within the context of late Jewish apocalyptic thought, to claim the resurrection of a single individual before the end of the world was to introduce quite a new element….Neither the disciples nor anyone else expected the resurrection of one person alone. Without a new, compelling reason they would not have asserted the individual resurrection of Jesus.

After I popularized this idea a bit as part of my “impossible faith” thesis, a few members of the atheist camp have come up with their own silly ideas in an attempt to dull the point, the end result mostly being to show that they are far more wedded to fundamentalist-atheist sloganeering than to serious scholarship. One such response is to say that, “People do not always believe what they expect to believe. They also believe in unexpected things." Of course they do, but they also have reasons for doing so. And the need for reasons to do so has a direct corollary to how many barriers there are to believe in it. Atheists who think this is some kind of all-purpose refutation are merely sloganeering to their own crowd, which is already convinced of their own intellectual superiority by the mere fact that they do not believe in superstitious nonsense. They may as well create ballcaps and t-shirts with the slogan, “Make Atheism Great Again” and otherwise keep their mouths shut.

In this case, one must deal with the hard fact – not disputed by anyone using available evidence and interpreting it correctly  – that resurrection was associated among Jews with eschatological judgment. You may as well have tried to say that the end of the world was coming today, but just a little bit. Just belching out fundamentalist atheist slogans like “people believe weird things all the time for all kinds of reasons” isn’t an argument; it’s a deft avoidance of argument and an appeal to base pride of being intellectually elevated above those stupid Christians. Further attempts to insult the intelligence of others by pointing out that first century Jews also believed in silly things like Messiahs and magical resurrections is just more of the same bigoted sloganeering.

Another foolish argument in this regard is that accounts in the New Testament never show this problem being brought up by opponents of Christianity, so it must not have been a real problem. Yes, I don’t imagine it would be brought up. For one thing, the opponents of Christianity were generally people in power who didn’t have any need to bring up such objections; their response was always the point of a sword. The sort of person who would bring up this sort of objection (or think of it) would be the average Jewish artisan, merchant or peasant to whom Christians would be preaching on the street. These same persons would also generally not have any means to write down their objections (having this slight problem, rather widespread in the day, called “illiteracy”) and would also be unlikely to get to this objection anyway: The far more impressive and immediate objection would be that Jesus was shamed and crucified like a common criminal, and so could not be divine. It is absurd to suppose that just because no one registers this objection (to Jesus’ unique resurrection) in recorded New Testament discourse, this must mean it would not have been a problem. It is even more foolish to think it would be found in the New Testament in the first place, because the New Testament texts are not missionary documents that targeted non-believers. The most convincing proofs would be used in and reserved for oral preaching, where likewise objections of any sort would also be addressed. The atheist who makes this argument is falling for the usual snare in which it is assumed that first century Christians, like Christians of today, evangelized with a Bible in one hand and a Chick tract in the other.

Appeal has also been made in the past to the confused meanderings of New Testament scholar David Bryan, who is 2005 wrote an article on the subject. As I pointed out in Defending the Resurrection:

Bryan first points out that there were certainly Jews who believed that God made exceptions of some special people from the normal course of events. In terms of death, he notes, some special people could be transformed or exalted to heaven instead of dying. But is it not true that none of this involves resurrection? Yes, Bryan agrees, but to make this point is “specious” because: “The language was not used because, in the minds of the authors and their communities, they had not died.”

But this is arguing in a circle. Essentially Bryan is arguing that the language of resurrection was not used because they were not even in a condition where they would be subject to resurrection. In addition, Bryan’s point only magnifies our own: Yes, this could happen to “special people.” And thus, our very point: The Christian missionaries would need to prove that Jesus was special in order for people to believe in his Resurrection.

I don’t hold to all the arguments Bryan critiques by any means. That said, the prime argument of his that relates to my arguments is a demonstrable failure. 

Beyond this, we see that many critics commit the classic error of base fundamentalist atheists like C. Dennis McKinsey, who designated anything and everything as a “resurrection” by redefining the term to include men like Noah or Moses who were given angelic bodies. As I noted, though, even if we accept these as “resurrections” they just prove the point. Early Christians would be saying that Jesus was on a par with Noah and Moses. It is playing the fool to redefine “resurrection” to include such events. (If those are “resurrections,” then Popeye was “resurrected” after he ate spinach.) Transformations like those of Moses and Noah were ways to get around the exact problem posed by the resurrection of Jesus. Moses and Noah could NOT have been resurrected, because that was a process specifically reserved for end-time judgment. 

In my next entry, I’ll discuss some more attempts to get around this problem the way McKinsey or Acharya S did: By redefining “resurrection” Humpty Dumpty style to mean whatever the critic wants it to mean.

Comments

Anonymous said…
"By way of further example, one such point of offense was Christianity’s claim that the process of resurrection was one reserved for the end of time, and for all men, all at once. The resurrection of Jesus would have been a non-starter in Jewish contexts based on this alone. (Gentile contexts are a different matter.) If the disciples were mere inventors, and if they followed the lead of their social world, it would have been enough to say that Jesus' body had been taken up to heaven. This would have made Christianity a much easier "sell" to the Jews (and the pagans). The Jews had within their traditions stories of righteous men whose bodies had been taken up to heaven: Elijah in the Old Testament, and the body of Moses in the apocryphal literature."

What was the Pharisaic thinking on this? As far as I know, the NT and Josephus are by far the best sources on the Pharisees, and neither give much insight at all about the specifics of the resurrection. You seem very sure the resurrection of Jesus would have been a "non-starter", and I am just wondering what your evidence for that might be?
Joe Hinman said…
a major source that is really overlooked is the life and times of Jesus the messiah by Alfred
Edershuime.He was an expert om Talmud which was the servile of pharisee beyond the destruction of the temple.
Anonymous said…
I really meant a source from the time, but the Talmud I will grant you. So where in the Talmud does it make clear that the resurrection of Jesus would have been a "non-starter"?
J. P Holding said…
I took some time off because of Elliot Miller's passing.

Basically, there's no exceptions to this idea at all in the Jewish literature. Daniel describes a universal judgment; there are no exceptions. So do Jesus and Paul. So does intertestamental lit. It requires imagination to find any hint of a belief that there was any variation on the critical points in question for the argument I am presenting.

I know of no Pharasaic literature that has survived, though Joe is right to appeal to the Talmud, which is the heir apparent to the Pharasaic literature that would have existed.

Josephus was writing for his Roman patrons, so I wouldn't expect him to write much about such theological arcana (from the Roman point of view).

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