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Explaining Away Jesus’ Resurrection: Part III

Last of Three Parts

Following the procedure adopted in the two earlier articles of this series, let us consider the intrinsic difficulties in Edward Schillebeeckx’s “reconstruction” of the Easter story–that is, those difficulties over and above the fact that we have no first-century witnesses who actually report any of the alleged events which distinguish his “reconstruction” from what we read in the New Testament.

First a preliminary note. According to Schillebeeckx, Peter and the other apostles became convinced somehow that Jesus was “risen” and “living” in a complete and full way: For them he was not just another righteous soul in paradise like Moses and Abraham, awaiting the final resurrection.

Yet Schillebeeckx excludes the idea that Peter and his associates initially saw Jesus’ “new life” in terms of a miraculous, tomb-emptying event. Logically, on Schillebeeckx’s terms, they must have been persuaded somehow by the divine influence of grace that Jesus, in view of his exalted status as Savior, had been “clothed” in a new, mysterious “spiritual body” which did not consist of transformed or glorified earthly matter but of some other substance.

Now for the implausibilities:

(i) As we noted earlier, the theory, like all of this type, is based on the gratuitous and inconsistent notion of a God who works only “mild” miracles.

(ii) If the underlying idea is to produce a version of the Resurrection which is more credible to “modern science,” then why is Schillebeeckx’s theory an improvement on the traditional belief he rejects? At least we have first-century documents which purport to provide empirical (eyewitness) evidence that a man actually did rise from the dead. But we have no records of anybody claiming to have been told (by God or anyone else) that Jesus had taken on a new body of the sort required by Schillebeeckx’s theory. This theory excludes the idea that the risen Lord was a discarnate spirit; but why is it more scientifically acceptable to postulate the existence of some other “stuff” (ectoplasm, perhaps?) which is totally imperceptible to our five senses, has no origin within the physical universe, and which constitutes the distinctive feature of Jesus’ Resurrection body?

(iii) By what psychological process were Peter and the Twelve converted to a faith that Jesus, as Savior, was now living in this particular mode stipulated by Schillebeeckx and in no other? A wordless “feeling” of Jesus’ “presence,” devoid of any perceptible phenomena or any conceptual content, could not possibly have brought about this level of precision.

An apparition of the sort we are familiar with from the mystical experience of many Catholic saints (and even children) down through the centuries, and corresponding, perhaps, to the way in which the disciples “saw” Moses and Elijah on the mountain, would not in itself have produced faith in a unique “resurrection” of this sort, but merely a comforting reassurance that the spirit of the saintly prophet Jesus was with God.

Schillebeeckx and likeminded scholars rule out the kind of appearances for which we do have evidence and which by their very nature would have been apt to produce faith that Jesus had a real live body of some sort, namely, the highly “tangible” encounters recorded in the Gospels. These offensively “physical” details are dismissed by Schillebeeckx and all thoroughgoing form critics as later accretions–they call them “theological reflections.”

Thus Schillebeeckx would almost be driven to postulate a locution of some sort in which the risen Christ, perhaps in the context of a respectably ethereal sort of apparition, communicated in clear concepts to Peter and the rest, explaining to them that he was not just a spirit, that he was reigning with God in his Resurrection body, even while his old, earthly body remained permanently lifeless on Earth. Divine silence on this final point would leave us, in effect, with the absurdity of “God the hoaxer,” given that the tomb was empty or was soon to be found in that condition.

Since the average Jew would have assumed that anyone proclaiming someone’s resurrection probably meant to say that his corpse had been restored to life, the original kerygma, on Schillebeeckx’s hypothesis, must have included explicit and strong denials of any such miracle–denials which must have increased in intensity after the tomb was found empty. Otherwise we will be forced to conclude that the disciples were perpetrators not only of a hoax, but of a b.asphemous hoax: a deliberate concealment of what the risen Christ himself had revealed to them about the purely natural and nonmiraculous fate of his earthly corpse.

If we rule that out, Schillebeeckx would have to maintain that, when Peter and the rest first began preaching the Resurrection around Jerusalem, they must have included in their message something like either of these:

(a) “Yes, of course his crucified body is still there in the tomb–but that doesn’t militate against our message. We’re talking about a different sort of Resurrection. Jesus received a completely new body from God.”

(b) “No, no, no! We all know Jesus’ tomb has been empty for some time now, but in proclaiming his Resurrection to you, we’re not suggesting that something miraculous happened to his corpse. Resurrection just isn’t like that at all. As far as his tomb is concerned, it’s just a nasty case of theft, as we’ve all taken for granted until now. The risen Lord himself has assured us that his new body is not the old one restored to life.”

The wild improbability, of course, is that although, on this hypothesis, the original kerygma specifically excluded a miraculous, tomb-emptying Resurrection, and although the apostles presumably continued to make this clear throughout the next twenty or thirty years while they were founding and governing new churches all around the Mediterranean basin and the Near East, the truth was entirely suppressed throughout the Church very soon after their deaths.

We are asked to believe that the completely fictitious tales which we now find in the Gospels (which on this hypothesis had always been contradicted by the recognized guardians of Christ’s revelation) and the likewise fictitious sermons and events in Acts–where Luke has the apostles proclaiming an empty-tomb Resurrection within a few weeks of Jesus’ death–could quickly and universally become accepted as unquestionably true, even while a great many elderly Palestinians, both Christian and non-Christian, could still testify as eyewitnesses to the flagrant discrepancies between this new “gospel” and the original kerygma and historical events following Jesus’ death.

Quite possibly, the apostle John himself was still alive at Ephesus, preaching faithfully the fact that Jesus’ corpse never rose to life at all. At the least, if Schillebeeckx’s “reconstruction” were true, we would expect some schism, some small group of conservatives who refused to accept a “theological reflection” which, they could see, was betraying the original, sober facts of history and which was distorting what the apostles had always taught.

History records no such division. The first Christian century seems strangely void of groups professing the Dutch theology of the twentieth.

In common with all theories, whether theological or completely naturalistic, which suggest that belief in a miraculous Resurrection did not arise suddenly but gradually grew over years in accordance with normal human processes of legend formation, Schillebeeckx’s imaginary scenario takes no account of the unique sociological circumstances surrounding the early history of the Christian Church.

Legends certainly grow up around famous men and women after their death. But they do not turn into dogmas–the first principles of a new religion which are preached energetically as necessary for salvation–within a generation of the lifetime of the central figure–unless, of course, there is conscious fraud somewhere along the line.

Real legends, by their very nature, start off as entertaining speculations or fascinating rumors. They may indeed end up as dogmas, as those of the Greek and Roman pantheons were at certain stages of history. But this can only take place after a long period in which the legends have become tied up with the common cultural inheritance, so that (in sharp contrast to the first generation of Christians, who were generally despised and frequently persecuted) the political powers find it advantageous to insist on their acceptance, for reasons of national unity, social control, and so on.

Schillebeeckx’s theory still leaves the empty tomb an enigma. Why did nobody ever produce the corpse?

If (as he would probably suggest) the body was removed by Jews who did not like seeing a Christian cult developing around Jesus’ mortal remains, then he would have to postulate either sudden death (or emigration) and complete secrecy on the part of the thieves, in the event that the miraculous Christian interpretation of the tomb’s emptiness began fairly soon after its discovery, or else a long period of time during which it was commonly accepted by the Jerusalem Christians that the tomb had been robbed. This would allow a sufficient time interval during which the thieves might have died or emigrated before feeling any need to produce Jesus’ skeleton in order to nip the new “miracle” claim in the bud.

(The effects on the bones of the nails would have afforded an adequate means of identification even after the flesh had completely decayed. Most victims of crucifixion were attached to the cross with ropes, not nails.)

But the longer the time period, the better established it would have become in the Christian consciousness that theft was the cause of the tomb’s emptiness, hence the more difficult it would be for the miracle claim subsequently to turn into a dogma universally accepted and proclaimed by all Christians. In short, whether belief in the miraculous raising of Jesus’ corpse began soon after the tomb robbery or not until much later, Schillebeeckx will be forced to postulate improbable circumstances.

If in fact belief in the miraculous Resurrection of Christ did not begin until quite some time after the crucifixion, it seems strange that no Jews ever taxed Christians with falsehood, once they started insisting that everything took place within two days of his death. Had all the Jerusalem opponents of Christianity suddenly forgotten that many months or years went by before such a miracle was ever heard of?

We have no trace of any Jewish polemic against the alleged timing of the Resurrection, as recorded in the Gospels, nor of any Christian apologetic which indicates that this chronological.aspect of the final story was something which they were struggling to defend.

On the contrary, the thesis accepted by liberal critics, that Matthew’s account of the tomb guards is a legendary apologetic, is not consistent with Schillebeeckx’s chronology. Such an apologetic would be of little use to the Christians if their opponents had been stressing the fact that belief in a miraculous evacuation of the tomb did not start until long after the three-day period. Matthew’s story involving guards could only have been useful to Christians if their opponents already conceded that the story of a miraculous Resurrection began to spread very soon after Jesus’ death.

In truth, Schillebeeckx’s suggestion that the empty tomb was originally accepted by the whole Christian community as the unfortunate evidence of a tomb robbery rests on nothing more solid than the thinly-veiled, likeminded prejudice of the exegete John E. Alsup. Since the latter finds it incredible a priori that a physically risen Jesus (or angels) should really appear to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, it is natural for him to conclude there were originally no reports of these supernatural appearances at the time when the empty tomb was first discovered.

How natural and how easy for Alsup to deduce that John 20:1, followed immediately by those parts of verses 11-13 which simply describe Mary weeping and expressing her bewilderment as to where the body may have been taken to, represent the “oldest stratum” of the “tomb traditions”!

Only the flimsiest exegetical pretext is then necessary to persuade himself and others such as Schillebeeckx that everything else in John’s account of the first Easter morning has been interpolated and “woven in” at a later date. (See the previous article in this series.)

It may have been noted that until this point, in identifying the weaknesses in the various theories, theological and otherwise, which have been put forward as alternatives to the traditional belief in Christ’s Resurrection, we have never simply appealed to the authority of the Gospels or Acts, even considered as purely human historical sources. That kind of appeal, I believe, has been a fault in the apologetical procedure which traditional Catholics and Protestants have usually followed.

It is customary to find, as for instance in the Catholic Arnold Lunn’s book The Third Day or in the Protestant Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict, a chapter or two attempting to vindicate the historical reliability of the New Testament records in general, followed by an apologetic which thinks itself entitled, on this basis, to assume as proven the historicity of everything in those records which is not itself specifically miraculous.

The final step in the apologetic is then to argue that the miraculous parts too, and above all the Resurrection of our Lord from the tomb, are likewise historically reliable because alternative explanations do not fit in with the nonmiraculous facts which have supposedly been established beyond question by this preliminary vindication of the evangelists’ overall trustworthiness as historians.

Such a methodology seems to me loose and inadequate. There is no way that the Gospels can be proved inerrant, even as far as their nonmiraculous affirmations are concerned, by reason alone–that is apart from an appeal to Christian faith, which proclaims their inspiration.

The apparent discrepancies between them, which have challenged Christian apologists ever since the patristic era, would lead unaided reason to a presumption that they may in fact contain errors, and the fact that they contain so much miraculous material would justify a further question mark from the point of view of unaided reason alone, just as the Church today places an automatic question mark, in the first instance, against every contemporary report of a miracle, apparition, or private revelation.

This has nothing to do with unreasonable prejudice against miracles; it is just part of that prudent caution which is the appropriate initial response, given that there are so many false reports of miracles for every genuine case. Nor am I suggesting that the inerrancy of the Gospels cannot be defended by unaided reason, only that it cannot be established by that means. As Augustine said, “I would not believe the Scriptures unless I first believed the Church.”

What I think we can demonstrate by reason about the Gospels is that they show certain healthy signs of historical credibility: accuracy of detail confirmed by archaeology, authors’ refusal to omit embarrassing or problematical incidents, the fact that their literary form is utterly unlike that of legends and myths, and so on.

But all this is a long way from proving that they are so reliable that each and every incident recorded therein–even every nonmiraculous incident–can be taken as unquestionably factual and as a basis for further “proofs” of the miraculous affirmations.

This method of argument makes itself an easy target of scornful criticism from today’s skeptical exegetes and theologians–“naive Fundamentalism,” they charge. For this reason my own method has not been to assume the unquestionable historicity of anything at all in the Gospels or in Acts if that thing is commonly regarded as being of doubtful historical value by the demythologizers. I have tried to proceed by showing the intrinsic implausibilities and incoherencies involved in all the various alternative hypotheses.

Two other improbable “coincidences” will have to be added to the list of difficulties involved in every explanation of Christian origins other than that recorded in the New Testament.

The first involves the Shroud of Turin, which fits in perfectly with the New Testament record. If the disbeliever in an empty-tomb Resurrection accepts this relic as the winding sheet of Christ, then his alternative hypotheses are immediately narrowed down accordingly. He must admit that the tomb robbery did take place within a few days of the crucifixion and that the thief had some motive for stripping the body and leaving the grave cloths in the tomb. If the cloth had remained wrapped round a decaying corpse, then it would have decayed as well.

He also must add the remarkable coincidence–perfectly compatible with the hypothesis of miraculous bodily resurrection, but exceedingly improbable otherwise–that the image on the Shroud is of an extraordinary character. It is not at all what one would expect on a cloth which had encircled a crucified body for a couple of days, and so far it has defied all scientific attempts to explain how it could have become imprinted on the ancient piece of material.

This improbability must be admitted and shrugged off by everyone who wants to say the Shroud is a fake, a product of human ingenuity. By all means call it a fraud if you like, just so long as you are prepared to admit how utterly extraordinary and statistically improbable a fraud it is.

If it is a fraud, it is one executed centuries before the advent of photography, but which somehow hit on the idea of portraying the Lord’s body as a negative–a fraud carried out, moreover, by a consummate artist who was so skillful that he not only succeeded in baffling modern experts as to how he produced the image, but was able to produce a portrait the grave beauty of which could only be appreciated centuries later, when viewed on photographic negatives.

The second extraordinary fact which must be faced up to by every denier of Jesus’ bodily Resurrection is that of the dozens of incorrupt bodies of Catholic saints which have adorned Christendom for two millennia.

They do not all stay permanently and totally incorrupt, but there is incontestable evidence that the phenomenon of incorruption does take place with holy Catholic and Orthodox men and women (those, interestingly, who, being members of churches with valid apostolic succession, have repeatedly received the glorified Body of Christ in Holy Communion) and that this phenomenon is totally distinct from the results of every known form of natural or artificial mummification.

All forms of the latter leave the body dried or rigid or discolored after time, whereas in cases of incorruption the flesh, often after many centuries, remains fresh and supple, frequently giving off a sweet perfume when the casket is opened. For a thorough study of this phenomenon, complete with photographs and detailed medical evidence, the reader is referred to The Incorruptibles by Joan Carroll Cruz. Cruz gives documented reports on 102 such bodies.

I do not suggest that this phenomenon in itself is direct evidence for the Resurrection of Christ, but it is beautifully in harmony with the Church’s traditional faith: a sign or symbolic reminder of the future resurrection which awaits believers and, above all, an indication that this earthly flesh is something important to God so that miracles involving corpses are very much part of the divine plan and so that bodily corruption/incorruption is in some important way linked with sin/holiness, just as the Bible teaches (Acts 2:29-36, 13:32-37).

An a priori denial of these ideas is, as we have observed, integral to the worldview of those who deny or doubt the empty-tomb Resurrection of Christ or who try to maintain at least that the involvement of Jesus’ corpse is something irrelevant to his “Resurrection.” (A phenomenon such as the twice-yearly liquefaction of the blood of St. Januarius, in the Naples cathedral, can also be seen as falling into broadly the same category. That the liquefaction occurs is incontestable; repeated spectroscopic examination of the substance in the crystal reliquary has verified its constitution as human blood.)

Those who do not accept the physical Resurrection of Jesus can adopt one of three attitudes toward incorrupt bodies.

They can deny that the phenomenon exists and postulate instead a worldwide, millennia-long conspiracy of Catholic nuns, clergy, and doctors (quite a few non-Catholics as well) who have in fact embalmed all these bodies very expertly and have never let any truthful and unbiased expert examine them.

Second, they can accept the phenomenon as miraculous, while still retaining their skepticism about Jesus’ empty-tomb Resurrection. They accept the notion of a God who creates a universe out of nothing and who intervenes in history to the extent of the Incarnation and the life of grace, but they deny that he would raise his Son’s dead body to life.

Yet isn’t it much less plausible to admit God works miracles of preservation with the bodies of some of Jesus’ followers and yet deny that he is at all likely to have worked a grand, archetypal miracle with the body of Jesus himself?

The a priori a priori attitude which, while perfectly intelligible and consistent for an atheist or agnostic, is grossly irrational in the mind of a theist.

Third, those who deny Jesus’ miraculous Resurrection can opt for the theory that incorrupt bodies are to be explained by natural causes as yet unknown, that they manifest a kind of super-mummification which science will one day explain without any reference to supernatural categories.

This hypothesis involves improbabilities of an astronomical order. Since, on this hypothesis, the phenomenon is genuine but has no causal connection with God, holiness, or the Christian faith, we would expect to find it distributed at random among the bodies of those of varying religious, irreligious, and moral backgrounds and to be correlated with at least some common features regarding burial conditions (soil, temperature, type of container, degree of moisture). But this is not the case.

Authentic incorruption appears to be confined exclusively or almost exclusively to devoutly religious, non-Protestant Christians who were buried under the most widely varying physical conditions. (Sometimes the circumstances were ideal for the most rapid possible decay: The body of Francis Xavier, for instance, was as fresh as at the hour of death after ten weeks packed in four sackfuls of lime, which had been applied for the express purpose of hastening decomposition so the bare bones could be shipped to a proper resting place.)

After reading the various attempts, ancient and modern, religious and irreligious, to provide a plausible alternative to the New Testament account of Christian origins, I find myself coming back to the original Jewish accusation as the one which seems to be fraught with the least difficulties: straight out tomb robbery and hoax on the part of Jesus’ disciples, a hoax which finally won billions of adherents throughout two millennia and which changed world history more profoundly than any other single event.

The specific difficulties noted in this theory (see the first installment of this series), combined with the extraordinary fact that the religious community springing directly from this “hoax” just happened to end up, by the most marvelous of coincidences, with phenomena as unexpected and statistically improbable as the Shroud of Turin and dozens of incorrupt bodies–phenomena so readily intelligible if Jesus really did rise miraculously, so enigmatic if he did not–these problems seem insurmountable.

We may be morally certain even on the basis of unaided human reason and in accordance with the unvarying teaching of the Catholic Church that the New Testament affirmations of Jesus’ Resurrection from the tomb are fact, not fiction.

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