For my next trick . . .

OK, this is my second attempt at elucidating the interaction between theology and history in the Resurrection for my Biblical Theology class.  This was written for a sixty-year-old Episcopalian, mind you, so it’s not the “bloggiest” thing I’ve ever written.  But I think the ideas are interesting.

I called it “Puzzle and Picture: The Resurrection in History”.  I’m particularly proud of the puzzle metaphor that sort of emerged at the end of the fourth paragraph and just got better and better the more I thought about it.  Enjoy.

In my last essay, I attempted to explain the difference between history, the study of the human past, and theology, speech about God, and work out their implications for the Christian faith.  Since the Incarnation and Resurrection are both theological and historical, Christianity necessarily confounds the Enlightenment distinction between the spheres of God and humanity, theology and history.  When it comes to the Resurrection, this raises the question of whether or not the Resurrection is accessible to historians.  Can history confirm (or deny) the Resurrection?  This essay attempts to delineate the bounds of historical study in regards to the Resurrection, and begins to explore just how history and theology might interact in the Christian faith.

The Resurrection was an event.  Events happen.  They occur, they come to pass.  When we affirm that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, we refer to an event that occurred at a particular moment in time—here, “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea”[1]—and in a particular location in space—“in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.”[2]  But just because an event happens, that is, ‘comes to pass’, does not make it the proper object of historical study.  Historians cannot access events directly, for once an event ‘comes to pass’, it has passed and is the past.  Historians, then, require something which records and preserves the past: ideally, a text.  But, perhaps surprisingly, the canonical texts contain no record of the moment of the Resurrection. 

It seems very strange that, at this point, of all points, the Gospel writers should fall strangely silent.  None of them seem to have the slightest interest in narrating the very event that lies at the heart of Christian doctrine.  Yet the gap in the story is so striking that we must understand it to be deliberate.  Other gospel writers, whose works were circulating at the same time as those which would eventually become canonical, were more than willing to write accounts.  The Gospel of Peter, for example, narrates a whole cloud of witnesses, including soldiers, centurions, elders, and a whole crowd from Jerusalem watching angels descend from heaven, roll away the stone, and bring out Jesus (not to mention a talking cross).[3]  By contrast, the canonical Gospels seem uninterested in the matter, and make no apology for their silence regarding the Resurrection of Jesus.  What they are very interested in—and what they record a whole litany of witnesses to—is the Risen Christ.

Although, due to the silence of the Gospels, the Resurrection event is inaccessible (by direct means, at least) to historians—a  question to which they can answer neither ‘yes’ or ‘no’—the Risen Christ, due to the resounding voice of the Gospels, is not.  What historians have to work with is a record of events before and after the Resurrection.  Whether or not the texts are reliable records is up for debate, but if their task is to reconstruct what ‘actually happened’, they must explain what, exactly, caused the authors of these texts to record things the way they did.  In the modern quest to understand how the early Church came to be, this has been the central question: what, exactly, happened that converted a bunch of cowardly Jews to seemingly fearless preachers of a completely new doctrine: that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God?  Between the empty tomb and the appearance accounts, there is that stunning silence—a gap to be filled.  What historians must do is fill in the empty space with something that makes the rest of the puzzle fit together.

Unfortunately, none of the pieces in the historian’s box quite fit.  Indeed, the last century of historians’ attempts at a ‘natural’ explanation for the rise of Christianity have been like a man who, having fit together all of the pieces and discovered that one was missing, proceeded to tear apart the whole puzzle and rearrange the pieces again and again, only to find each time an empty space staring up at him.  And it is a crucial piece that is missing, the crucial piece, in fact, one which makes sense of the whole picture, which is indeed the very subject of the picture.  The work of John Dominic Crossan and the Jesus Seminar falls into this category.  Using source, form, and redaction criticism, they deconstruct the puzzle into its individual pieces and try to fit them together in a new way, but somehow always end up missing a piece.  As a result, the picture they end up with is convoluted and bears all the marks of someone, whether purposely or not, trying to avoid the obvious solution: a piece of evidence curiously left out here, a forced connection there, and so on.  Crossan, for instance, has argued that Jesus was but a “Jewish Cynic”—a nonviolent revolutionary, a la Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.—and that Jesus was honored in early Christianity as a powerful magician.  His Messianic status, his burial, and his Resurrection were all imputed long after his death, and the Gospels represent, then, the “historicization” of later Christian beliefs.  Yet for all of their work, Crossan and the Jesus Seminar have yet to provide a satisfactory explanation for all the evidence.  Their solutions lack elegance and simplicity.

The simplest and most satisfactory explanation posited thus far is that Jesus of Nazareth did, in fact, in history, in space and time, rise from the dead.  The gap in the puzzle between the empty tomb and the Risen Jesus takes precisely this shape, and though historians cannot provide the piece itself, they can certainly see the outline.  Its contours are apparent enough.  This event, insofar as it had no witnesses, and insofar as its cause was not human, but divine, is inaccessible to historians.  The Resurrection confronts them as the inexplicable gap, the missing piece whose shape is discernible but whose color and content are unknowable by the historical method.  Yet this same event, insofar as its effects were on humans, particularly, Jesus and his followers, is and indeed must be a part of history, part of the human past.  Faced with an all-but-completed puzzle, we must rightly assume not that the missing piece never existed, but that we have somehow lost it.

That piece, of course, is in the hands of the Church.  It is the central event of the Christian faith: that God raised Jesus the Messiah from the dead.  Thus, while the shape of the Resurrection is historical, its content is theological.  What it pictures is not the action of humans but of God.  When we place it into the puzzle, we find that our solution thus far has not been mistaken, that all the pieces fit together.  But in addition, we find that the piece we have supplied not only interlocks with all of the pieces, but completes the picture the puzzle displays, infusing it with meaning and purpose.  It is as if we have been missing part of a painting which, once discovered, turns out to have been the very point of the whole work.  It is its very focal point, the object around which all the other pieces revolve and in which all the other pieces find meaning and value.  The Resurrection—the event at which God raised Jesus Christ from the dead—is an event which transforms the whole of history, yet remains inaccessible to it. 

 


[1] Luke 3:1a, NRSV

[2] Luke 23:53, NRSV

[3] The text of this peculiar passage can be found at http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/9109.htm.

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