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Friday, April 6, 2012

The Resurrection According to N.T.Wright

As we have seen in the previous posts, even some scholars who claim to be Christians argue that no earth-shaking event took place after Jesus' death, except for some compelling visions and dreams. According to them, some of the apostles felt that Jesus was still with them spiritually and over the years the Church came up with a tradition of Him being raised physically. From the beginning of my "journey" towards conversion I felt that this version of the birth of Christianity was just not good enough. Of course I was delighted when I found out that the Anglican bishop N. T. Wright supported my opinion, because I found support in my faith as well.

Wright wrote that the resurrection narratives, had they been fabricated, would have contained "words of the Lord" to explain what happened, or some embroidery from biblical tradition, which is present in all the other gospels stories. Of course he doesn't believe that the gospel stories are fabricated, but he maintains that the evangelists would have tried to be consistent with the rest of their work. Jesus would have been depicted as a radiant heavenly being, like in the transfiguration narratives, or perhaps like He was described in the gospel of Peter. Most scholars believe that this gospel is later than the canonical gospels but it doesn't belong to the Gnostic tradition. It narrates how two men came down from heaven while a loud voice was heard ranging out up there, and how the stone which had been laid against the entrance to the tomb rolled away by itself. Then the two man, whose heads were reaching the clouds, entered the tomb and came out supporting a third man, supposedly Jesus, whose head was over-passing the heavens. They were, by the way, followed by a speaking cross. This is how ancient people wrote works of fantasy. The canonical gospels, on the other hand, sound truthful precisely because they are vague and contradictory, like the account of an inexplicable event would be.

When I make this claim, my son objects that whoever wanted to fool the reader would have used these expedients. What he doesn't acknowledge is that this form of literary subtlety was unknown in ancient times. Back then, writers either did "reportages" or used hyperbolic images to describe fantastic events. The practice of adding details to make an invented story resemble reality came in use only three hundred years ago. If my son were right, the evangelists would represent a unique case in history.
In the gospels, the risen Jesus is sometimes unrecognizable and sometimes He's solidly physical, as if He belonged to two dimensions at once. These properties don't resemble anything in pagan or Jewish tradition, It's like the evangelists are saying: I don't understand what happened, but this is what I was told and I can't change it because it's an extremely serious matter.

Wright insists that ancient people knew as well as we do the difference between visions and reality. "Cognitive dissonance" is the state in which individuals or groups fail to come to terms with reality and live instead in a fantasy that corresponds to their deep longings. He maintains that this can't be the case with Jesus' resurrection because the gospels narratives indicate that something unexpected happened after the crucifixion, something so compelling that the apostles had to turn their lives around completely. This led them to leave their families behind to organize their missionary work. They certainly didn't act like people who live in a dreamlike state.
According to Wright, all the explanations other than the reality of the resurrection mean "to stop doing history and to enter into…a new cognitive dissonance in which the relentless modernist, desperately worried that the post-Enlightenment world view seems in imminent danger of collapse, devises strategies for shoring it up nevertheless".

"The story of Jesus of Nazareth", he writes, "offers itself as…the arrival of God's kingdom precisely in the world of space, time and matter, the world of injustice and tyranny, of empire and crucifixions…But it's the real world…that the real God made and still grieves over…and that was decisively and forever reclaimed by that event, an event which demanded to be understood not as a bizarre miracle, but as the beginning of a new creation".

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Can Someone Who Doesn't Believe in the Resurrection Call Himself a Christian?

In Jesus For The Nonreligious, the Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong writes that in the twenty-first century we have to accept the fact that miracles just don't happen and never did. In his opinion, since some of the narratives in the gospels are inspired by the Old Testament, the entire texts are nothing but fabrications. All we are left with is the old Jeffersonian idea that Jesus was a great moral teacher, whose life was so whole that He was fully in contact with the ineffable entity that we call God, a God who did not raise Him from the dead.
Of course Shelby Spong attended the Jesus Seminar (see previous post), where John Dominic Crossan expressed his view of the birth of Christianity, namely that living with Jesus had the most profound effect on the apostles, who after His crucifixion felt that they had to put their own lives on the stake in His name.

My son thinks that this is the most beautiful interpretation of Jesus' story, for it gives Him back his exceptional value as a human being. Yet, to see Jesus as nothing but a moral teacher leads inevitably to a complete distortion of the circumstances of His death. The truth is that a Messiah was awaited and Jesus' disciples thought He was the One. His crucifixion, given their religious belief, could only mean that they were mistaken, for the Messiah was not supposed to die, especially not by the hands of the Romans. This is why any historian who looks at the gospels through the eye of a first century Jew knows that something must have happened to bring the apostles back to their first conviction, namely that Jesus was the awaited Messiah. Love was simply not enough to motivate them, in fact they fled when He was arrested and He died alone.

Jesus was certainly more than a teacher. The historicity of Jesus' healings has been sufficiently established (see my old post titled Miracles) and traces of the Old Testament in the gospels have nothing to do with their basic truthfulness. In fact, if one turns this problem on its head, there are plenty of prophecies in the Old Testament that confirm that Jesus was the Messiah.

As we have seen before, there are historic criteria to establish what is credible and what is not when it comes to ancient documents. For example, the star over Bethlehem could be an embellishment, but the account of Joseph of Arimathea burying Jesus' body is an historic claim. Yet, here is how Crossan comes to the conclusion that Joseph of Arimathea is a creation of Mark: The evangelist describes him as a member of the council that condemned Jesus; therefore Crossan wonders why, after His death, he felt the duty of giving Him proper burial. He reasons that, if it was out of human compassion, he would have buried the other two crucified criminals with him. Even Matthew and Luke, writes Crossan, realized the inconsistency of Mark's story, in fact Matthew does not say that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin and Luke says that he did not agree with its decision. According to Crossan Joseph didn't act coherently, therefore he never existed.
I must admit, of course respectfully, that it strikes me as ridiculous that a worldwide famous scholar, in spite of the fact that he claims to be a Christian, would dedicate so much effort to disprove the credibility of the gospels and, after many pages of pondering, would come up with THIS: Let's psychoanalyze a two-thousand year old Jew who may or may not have felt regret for the death of the young prophet. And this is only an example of Crossan's way of reasoning.

But let's return to Spong. He writes that after the shameful death of Jesus His disciples weren't able to wrap their mind around the idea that He wasn't the promised Messiah after all. His message was one of love and forgiveness and God had to be His inspiration. He admits that an unresolved inner turmoil such as this one must have required more than three days to develop into the determination to follow up with Jesus' ministry al all costs, so he argues that the three days mentioned in the New Testament are only a liturgical symbol and that it took from six months to a year for the apostles to start spreading Jesus' message. Unfortunately, there is not a shred of evidence that supports this theory, which bypasses the fact that not only the apostles were willing to die in the name of Jesus, but also many disciples who converted to Christianity. After six months or even a year, who could have been persuaded that a man crucified by the Romans was divine? The Jews, even those who had met Jesus, would have by then associated His death with His defeat.

When my faith still didn't have deep roots, another author made me doubt the reality of the resurrection maintaining that Christianity took off thanks to the brothers of Jesus and that the early church destroyed all evidence of their leading roles. Once again, not only there is no historical evidence of such a plot, but it's hard to come up with a plausible reason to justify it. N.T. Wright writes that several movements in the first century were linked through family dynasty, therefore it would have been a natural development for the early Christians to choose James the brother of Jesus as the new Messiah, yet it didn't happen. The Jewish
leaders wrote to James urging him to stop the blasphemous growing belief in the divinity of Jesus, but he did just the opposite and for that he was stoned to death. Even Josephus, the Jewish historian of the time, describes James as "the brother of Jesus the so-called Messiah".

I was silly enough to let myself be troubled by these abstruse theories, but then I realized that what generates them is the fact that even those who don't believe in the resurrection acknowledge the need to find an explanation for the birth of Christianity, Their books are nothing but a confirmation to my faith.