In the first article of this series we considered purely "rationalistic" attempts to explain away the evidence for Christ’s Resurrection - explanations which make no appeal to divine or supernatural activity at any stage in the process. Certain "theological" views, such as those of Rudolf Bultmann, can be reduced to a euphemistic way of saying the same thing.
Various other theologians of this century, while denying or doubting that Christ rose bodily from the grave, have tried to maintain some less stunning, but nonetheless real and decisive, contribution on God’s part to the events of the first Easter and to the rise of the Christian faith. This, they seem to hope, will provide a via media, a moderate, sensible account of the Resurrection, one which preserves the essential element ("Jesus is alive - somehow or other") while not offending the "scientific" world-view of modern man.
Right from the start we can make a common criticism of all such theories. All of them involve an arbitrary and inconsistent limitation on the power of God. Once a scholar admits the existence of an omnipotent deity whose extraordinary intervention in history must be invoked in order to explain the origin of Christianity, why should he draw the line at a miraculous bodily Resurrection?
This seems particularly true if a theologian already confesses belief in the most extraordinary of all interventions, God’s taking human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. Why should a well-documented physical Resurrection be more incredible than the Incarnation as such - or than a totally undocumented "spiritual" Resurrection? (I have in mind here such theologians as Edward Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner in his last years, Hans Kung, and many others.)
One suspects that behind this strange ambivalence lies nothing more than the outdated "common sense" physics which still remains part of the philosophical air we all breathe in a secularized, materialistic society. Insofar as "modern scientific man" (that juggernaut of theologians) is not a specialist in physics, he tends to cling to the idea, at least half-consciously, that matter is something completely perspicuous to human reason: tiny little no-nonsense nuggets of dense, solid, indestructible stuff - an idea as old as Democritus. "Modern man" may indeed be aware, at those times when his attention is focused only on science in itself, that modern theorists reject this concept completely, that they view "atoms" as a mysterious, dynamic flux of forces the ultimate nature of which seems quite unfathomable at present, and that in an age replete with such strange entities as quasars, black holes, and antimatter there simply are no clear-cut dogmas as to what sorts of transformations matter mayor may not be capable of undergoing.
ALL THIS tends to be quickly forgotten once the brain of modern man switches over to the channel marked "religious controversy" and he starts to think about that "antiquated" Christian dogma of bodily Resurrection. Shakespeare, "common sense," and Democritus then rush back to fill his mind, crowding out Einstein and Eddington.
He just "knows" that this "too, too solid flesh" can never melt, much less undergo some unimaginable spiritual process, called glorification, which withdraws it from the everyday conditions of our space-time experience. But he is wrong - modern science knows nothing of the kind and cannot pronounce even on the likelihood of some rare or unique occurrence of that description. The idea that it can make such pronouncements should be exposed for what it is, an unscientific dogma.
If science as such cannot make such a judgment, how much less should believers do so? The theologian who confesses in one breath that God created the material world and took flesh in Christ in order to redeem it, but who in the next breath denies a priori all likelihood that God could or would transform that material world (or part of it) in a way that mortal men cannot yet understand - such a theologian has opted for a patently unstable and inconsistent position. When one asks a sociological question, as he does ("What will modern man find credible?"), one should not expect to get good theological, philosophical, scientific, or historical answers.
This inconsistency is only the beginning of the problems involved in any attempt to include some special divine activity as an ingredient in the original Resurrection faith - whenever and wherever it may have arisen. To affirm this is of course to concur with what the New Testament says about what the apostles believed.
The problem facing a theologian who affirms that the first Christians believed in a miraculous, corpse-raising Resurrection, while he simultaneously denies that this belief was correct, is that this thesis leads logically to the idea of a God who deliberately deceives the disciples and, with them, the whole of Christendom for nearly two millennia. Since, on this hypothesis, the disciples’ faith in Jesus’ Resurrection was due to God’s activity and was not merely a case of delusion or auto- suggestion, it follows that God bears the responsibility for leading the disciples into error on the very point which, for them, was absolutely crucial - the miraculous raising of Jesus’ crucified body in the tomb.
In his all-powerful providence (we are asked to believe) God first sees to it that somebody mysteriously removes the body from the tomb to some permanently hidden locality and then acts upon the disciples’ consciousness in such an extraordinary way as to make them interpret the empty tomb as an integral part of a miraculous bodily Resurrection. God becomes an almighty hoaxer.
I CAN think of only one possible attempt to counter this objection. It might be argued that God, in acting thus, was simply accommodating himself to the primitive Jewish mentality of that time, which could not conceive of a true resurrection to eternal life except in terms of a revived corpse.
Thus, the only way for God to persuade the disciples of the core truth - that Jesus was truly alive in his total divinity and humanity was to enact this mythological little play with them. He then left it to the Holy Spirit, working through critical post-Enlightenment scholarship many centuries later, to show Christians gradually that, well, it wasn’t quite like that after all, that matter is not fit to be transformed into something glorious and incorruptible and that it would in fact have been unworthy of God (and perhaps not even possible) for him to have bestowed miraculous honors on that flesh which had just been torn and broken for the sins of the world.
Such an argument is no sooner glanced at than overthrown. Quite apart from the fact that this whole theory has its raison d’etre in the false popular notions about science and matter which we outlined above, it is scarcely consistent. We must note that it is this theory, not the traditional belief, which has chosen to base itself on a priori considerations about what sort of Resurrection would or would not be fitting or worthy of the divine dignity.
Traditional Christians believe in a literal raising of Christ’s dead body, not because they have decided speculatively that such an act would be appropriate for God ("It was fitting, therefore he must have done it"), but out of sheer fidelity to the constant, emphatic tradition handed down by the New Testament and the Church that this in fact is what God in his wisdom chose to do ("He did it, therefore it was fitting").
DISSIDENT modern theologians, on the other hand, deny or doubt the ancient testimonies that this is what God did, primarily because they have first decided, on extra-biblical, purely speculative, and philosophical grounds, that God just wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do that sort of thing ("It was unfitting, therefore he didn’t do it").
In the light of this, the traditional believer is entitled to place the onus on the modern Catholic and Protestant "demythologizers" to show how and why it would be more "unfitting" for God to raise and glorify his Son’s body, which had just suffered terribly for all mankind, than for that same divine majesty to turn a sordid tomb robbery into an integral part of a plan to deceive all the early Christians (for their own ultimate good, of course) into the joyous, but naive, belief that such a miraculous Resurrection had really taken place.
Finally, even in the impossible event that we were furnished with cogent moral, theological, or philosophical reasons showing why it would be more in keeping with the divine attributes for God to use such apparently base means to achieve a good end than to raise his Son’s corpse to life, we would still have to ask the demythologizers to explain why such means would in fact have been necessary for the end they are postulating. The suggestion that, unlike us, the disciples were "not ready" for the sobering truth about what "resurrection" really means seems quite preposterous. Compared with the stunningly untraditional concept of a crucified Messiah, which we know they were preaching from the very beginning and which so scandalized the majority of their Jewish contemporaries, the idea of a resurrected "body" which lives eternally with God while the original body rots in the grave would surely have seemed quite a tame innovation.
ANY CHILD of average intelligence, in even the most primitive culture, could have been given a roughly adequate idea of the concept of resurrection which, according to the view we are considering, is too "advanced" for first- century Palestinians to have understood. A simple analogy from nature would suffice: "When Jesus died, his old body crumbled to dust, but God straight away gave him a wonderful new body in heaven. It’s rather like a snake that sheds its old dead skin and wriggles off in a new one." To suggest that God was incapable of getting this message through to the first disciples, and thus had to spoonfeed them into believing that Christ’s old body had been raised, surely implies either imbecility on the part of the apostles or a surprising lack of resourcefulness on the part of Omniscience.
In fact, according to evidence cited by Edward Schillebeeckx - himself a leading demythologizer - one of the Jewish conceptions of the final resurrection was that of the saints’ receiving "a new heavenly body, coming down from heaven, as a gift of grace." Thus, the idea of a "resurrection" which did not involve any miraculous raising of the original body seems to have been already current in the disciples’ own culture.
SOME RECENT exegetes and theologians have adopted a different version of a "mildly miraculous" Resurrection. Prominent among them is Schillebeeckx, who suggests that the initial Christian belief in the Resurrection probably had nothing to do with belief in an empty tomb at all. In its essential nature, he maintains, the disciples’ "belief in the Jesus who is risen and lives with God" was "a process of conversion in which the cognitive element is fundamental." Neither "an empty tomb as such, nor. . . the visual elements which there may have been in ‘appearances’ of Jesus" were the foundation on which the disciples’ faith rested. Schillebeeckx claims to find support in recent exegetical studies, such as that of John E. Alsup, from whose form-critical analysis of the Gospel Resurrection narratives it "emerges" (we are told) that, to begin with, the "theme" of the empty tomb "did not function within a resurrection context. . . . [It] had no essential significance for the rise of belief in the resurrection." On the contrary, the empty tomb had a merely negative effect: It did not lead to triumphant hope in the Resurrection, but to confusion and sorrow. Schillebeeckx concludes that "the appearance tradition is historically independent of the tomb tradition and also independent of the tradition of the Easter Kerygma. "
HIS ATTEMPTED historical reconstruction goes something like this. For some time after Jesus’ death there was no unanimity among geographically-separated communities of Palestinian disciples as to what had happened to him. They simply shared a conviction, brought about by the grace of God, that he was of some unique eschatological significance and that he continued to exist in some highly honored way with God.
Some groups thought of him vaguely as "the Exalted one"; others, adopting a "parousia" or "maranatha" Christology, as "the one who is to come"; and still others expressed their understanding of his new mode of existence in explicit terms of "eternal life" or "Resurrection," but without supposing at first that this meant a miraculous raising of Jesus’ corpse.
According to Schillebeeckx, the one thing which no Christians believed.during the initial weeks (or months - or years?) after the Crucifixion is the one thing which, according to the New Testament, all Christians believed at that time, that Jesus rose physically from his tomb within 36 hours of his death and convinced his followers of that fact by very tangible appearances coupled with an angelic message at the empty tomb.
Eventually (Schillebeeckx continues) one or more women visited the tomb, but with no intention, of course, of anointing a body which they understood to have been corrupting for quite some time. To their dismay, they found the tomb open and empty. But nothing extraordinary occurred - no angels, no lifelike appearances of Jesus. The women inferred sadly - and correctly - that some unknown person had broken in and removed the body. This news naturally spread around Jerusalem, but nobody at first saw any reason to associate this unexpected development with the exhilarating idea of a miraculous Resurrection, since nobody in or near Jerusalem had until then seen any remarkable visual phenomena which might have lent support to such a theory.
INDEPENDENTLY of this incident - perhaps up in Galilee - some of the other disciples were by God’s grace given such a strong internal faith-conviction that Jesus was "fully alive" and reigning with God in heaven that this "new experience," this "new offer of salvation," may have included certain visual phenomena as a kind of byproduct or overflow.
If there were such visionary experiences of the risen Lord, though, they did not cause the disciples’ belief that Jesus was "fully alive," but, on the contrary, presupposed it. And they certainly were not of such a "physical" nature as to create the impression of a miraculous revival of his corpse - no eating, touching, talking, showing of nail wounds. God cannot be accused of deception, then, on Schillebeeckx’s hypothesis. It was merely that "Easter grace seized their heart and senses."
In the course of still more time - whether because of such visions or simply because Peter or some of the other disciples began to express their faith-encounter with the living Christ in realistic, yet metaphorical language - the "appearance traditions" began to take shape and circulate, with the external, visionary element gradually assuming prominence over the internal conversion experience. This popular development was probably assisted by comparisons with Old Testament theophany stories, which, according to Alsup, bear significant structural parallels to the New Testament Easter apparition stories.
Later still, the people who were circulating stories of these appearances heard the news that Jesus’ tomb was empty and that it was certain women who had happened to make this discovery. Thus, at long last the "tomb tradition" and the "appearance traditions" became woven together in the Christian imagination. Angels were added for good measure, and finally, years after the Crucifixion itself, was born the legend (Schillebeeckx prefers the euphemism "theological reflection") that Jesus had risen physically and appeared in an extremely tangible way to his disciples.
A FEW finishing touches were added - this whole myth of a miraculous Resurrection was retrojected back to the first day of the week after Jesus’ death; an inspection of the empty tomb by Peter and the "beloved disciple" was added to give an aura of authority; Matthew contributed an apologetic fictional tale about guards at the tomb; and Luke invented a further miracle, an ascension of Christ witnessed by the disciples, in order to provide a suitable exit from planet Earth for the risen Jesus.
While this legend was growing into the forms in which we now find it in the Gospels and Acts, the concept of "resurrection" was gradually spreading to those communities of believers who had initially expressed their post-mortem experience of Jesus only in terms of "the exalted one" or "the one who will gloriously come again," since the idea of resurrection was already implicit in them.
Thus, the entire body of believers - perhaps decades after Jesus’ death - reached the legendary consensus which was bequeathed to all the subsequent centuries of Christendom. Through no fault of the risen Christ himself, who had manifested himself only in the suavity of a "still small voice" - or, at most, in the form of those sorts of visions which many mystics have experienced throughout the centuries the true origins of Christianity became obscured beneath a heavy encrustation of myth.
SCHILLEBEECKX does not explicitly describe this as an unfortunate development, but since he presumably has a love for truth, he would surely have to admit that it has been regrettable that these unhistorical accretions have been proclaimed in an absolute and dogmatic way - as "gospel truth" in fact - by the Catholic Church from at least the end of the first century until the present time.
How could Schillebeeckx deny that if his thesis is true, the New Testament legend has caused unnecessary stumbling blocks to faith in Christ for countless critical and discerning minds throughout many centuries and that it has now led to deep and perhaps insoluble tensions and divisions within the Christian community itself, as traditional believers tenaciously persist in confusing the legendary "outer shell" of the Resurrection doctrine with its true essence and in laying charges of unorthodoxy against those who, like Schillebeeckx himself, have attained to a scientifically and historically more accurate conception?
On what basis (apart from the confused philosophical notions regarding science and the nature of matter which we criticized above) could Schillebeeckx possibly erect this elaborate reconstruction, which implies that the testimonies of the Gospels and of Acts, taken as they stand, are wholly unreliable as history?
The answer, we are told, is that form- and redaction-critical studies have shown us what we should read between the lines of the New Testament: that Christian communities existed, for instance, which did not at first think explicitly of Christ being resurrected or raised from the dead and that stories of an empty tomb were at first independent from appearance stories and expressed regret rather than joy.
But the exegetical arguments for these positions seem so transparently flimsy that one would think they could appeal only to those whose philosophical outlook has already converted them to disbelief or skepticism toward the traditional miraculous belief. How can one conclude, for instance, from the mere fact of some very ancient sources (e.g., the hymn in Philippians 2) which speak of Christ only as "exalted" that there existed a distinct community which did not believe explicitly in Jesus’ Resurrection?
The verb hyperycho (Phil. 2:9), on the pen or lips of the author, may just as easily have been another word for expressing the same belief. And when it comes to the current exegetical arguments for maintaining that what is ostensibly given as a homogeneous narrative in the Gospels is actually a patchwork of originally independent traditions, one can only express astonishment.
Two thousand years of Catholic scholarship detected no obvious disharmony or lack of unity in a narrative such as John 20: 1-18. Yet Alsup, an exegete upon whom Schillebeeckx relies strongly, asserts confidently (in his Post-Resurrection Stories of the Gospel Tradition) that verses 3-10 (the account of Peter and the "beloved disciple" running to the tomb) is an "insert," "by its very nature an addition."
"It is clear," declares Alsup, "that no organic relationship originally existed between the visit of Mary and the ‘race story.’ " The reasons given for this are twofold. First, we are told that there is "a tension in the present text" consisting in the fact that in verse 2 Mary runs back to Peter, yet in verse 11 we find her back at the tomb again.
WHY IS this a "tension"? For reasons best known to himself, Alsup apparently finds it self- evident that Mary, having run to summon the disciples, would not have returned with them (perhaps lagging a little behind) to the tomb. One would have thought that natural curiosity would prompt her to do precisely that: Perhaps the two men would be able to find out where the body had been taken!
Second, Alsup asserts that the "race story" "reflects a subsequent development by placing Peter (and the other disciple) at the grave and making him (them) the voice of apostolic authority." But by what stretch of the imagination can this be called an exegetical argument? Alsup is not here drawing out the meaning of the text; he is making the judgment that what it clearly means is not credible as history. That is a philosophical judgment which has nothing to do with Alsup’s professional sphere of competence in ancient languages and literature.
His "logic" seems to be roughly as follows: "If women alone were the sole original witnesses to the empty tomb, this later would have become an embarrassment to the early Church. Apostolic witnesses would be of much better apologetic value and therefore naturally would be invented. Now in fact we find apostolic witnesses in the final, canonical text therefore they never existed and were invented by the Church community or perhaps by the evangelists."
THIS KIND of form-critical argument depends for its plausibility on anti-miraculous assumptions. If we take it as obvious that (a) the first-century Church leaders responsible for guarding and transmitting an authorized tradition about Jesus were not interested in preserving substantial historical accuracy, (b) no reports of the raising of a dead body are ever to be believed, (c) no stories of angels appearing are ever to be believed, (d) of two accounts of an angelic appearance or miracle, that with more emphasis on marvelous detail (e.g., two angels instead of one, or a mention of how resplendent the angel was) is to be regarded as the later version, and (e) any narrative which would have had apologetic value to the early Church cannot be regarded as historical - if we first accept all these assumptions, then Alsup’s kind of exegesis, which is the predominant trend in contemporary biblical scholarship, would start to look fairly plausible.
But since the assumptions are arbitrary and unscientific, the resultant commentary on the text - and even more so the attempted reconstructions of history based on it, such as that by Schillebeeckx - must be judged to have no more value than that of the purest speculation or guesswork, unsupported by a shred of real evidence.